Bait and switch at the gas station

As President Obama always intended, high gas prices are “transforming” America.  There have been a few interesting milestones along the way, including the return of gasoline thieves, and the melancholy death of delivery services.

Here’s another anecdote of our low-energy transformation: bait and switch tactics at gas stations.  Consumer advocate Chris Churchill of the Albany Times-Union reports on a few cases of deceptive gasoline pricing, with what effectively amounts to a hidden surcharge for those who don’t pay in cash:

Gas prices are soaring, and many of us are looking to cut fuel costs where we can.

So when Kyra Thornton, a 28-year-old state worker, saw that a station in Rensselaer County was offering regular unleaded gas for less than a nearby Stewart’s, she made her choice and pulled her Honda CR-V up to a pump.

It wasn’t until Thornton checked her receipt that she realized she’d actually paid five cents per gallon more than the price she’d seen from the roadway. That price, it turned out, was for cash purchases only – and Thornton felt deceived.

“That’s false advertising,” she told me.

Churchill personally encountered something similar at a different gas station in the area.  The cash-only prices aren’t illegal under New York state laws, although Churchill calls for lawmakers to “require stations to make their credit price clear from the road,” and “mandate that stations display credit prices more prominently than the discount cost for the minority of customers who pay with cash.”

This all comes as a nasty surprise for consumers accustomed to using credit cards interchangeably with cash, for almost all purchases.  Very few people roll into a gas station carrying enough cash to fill their tanks at today’s prices.  We’ve all grown accustomed to quick and easy card-swipe fill-ups, but we might be on the verge of returning to a day when marching into the store and handing the clerk a ten or twenty dollar bill, to buy as much gas as we can afford at the cash-discount price, becomes common practice once again.

I’m no fan of micro-management through regulation, but printing cash-only prices in tiny lettering on signs that motorists must read through the windows of moving vehicles is dirty pool.  Cash discounts should be made obvious.  Or will we find ourselves rolling all the way back to the days when it was necessary to actually drive into each service station and eyeball the pumps before we can rest assured we’ve chosen the cheapest gas in the area?  That would make an already unpleasant experience downright nightmarish.