ARCO cuts credit, others stand pat

There's not likely to be an industrywide rush to follow Atlantic Richfield Company's plan to discontinue gasoline credit cards.

In fact, some industry observers say ARCO may lose up to a third of its business when it ends its credit-card service April 15. The observers say many customers will simply stop buying Arco gas if they have to pay cash.

But Arco hopes to hold on to its customers by being able to lower prices. The company expects to save $73 million by getting out of the credit business. As a result, it plans to lower the wholesale price of gas to dealers by three cents a gallon. Arco hopes that station owners will pass the savings on to their customers. Individual station owners will still be able to accept bank cards such as Visa or MasterCard if they choose.

Arco senior marketing vice-president George Babikian says the company knows it will lose business at first.

''We're going to eliminate credit and pass the savings on to the customer,'' he said. ''For every credit customer we lose, we hope to pick up two cash customers. Price is the single most important factor when most customers buy gas. We've catered to credit-card customers and ignored the cash customer. But it doesn't make sense for the cash-paying customer to subsidize those who buy on credit.'' Arco believes its lower prices will be able to compete with discount-gas stations, Mr. Babikian added.

Some 70 percent of Arco gas is bought with cash.

Arco's plan is the most radical move yet in the gasoline industry to ease the high cost of credit, which is estimated to add nearly three cents to the cost of a gallon of gas. While many of the oil companies say they are looking at ways to cut the cost of credit, which will stay high as long as interest rates stay high , none of the other major firms surveyed said they plan to follow Arco's lead. Spokesmen for Shell, Mobil, Amoco (Standard), and Exxon all said they plan to keep their plastic cards - although there may be changes.

* Standard Oil of Indiana is experimenting with a $6 annual fee for its gasoline card, said spokesman Jim Fair. It is also trying out an expanded credit card that is good in Standard stations, hotels, and restaurants -- and offers such added benefits as check-cashing, rental-car discounts, and free road maps. Yearly cost of the card could run from $12 to $20.

* Both Standard and Exxon are experimenting with discounts for customers who pay cash at the pump. Standard has been testing the approach in Peoria, Ill.; Omaha, Neb.; and Philadelphia. Exxon started the cash-discount experiment last month in Phoenix, Ariz.; Worcester, Mass.; and Jackson, Miss. Exxon lowers the wholesale price of gasoline and diesel fuel 1.7 cents a gallon to dealers participating in the trial program, but then charges the dealers a 3 percent processing fee for all credit business.

H. Spencer Nilson, editor of The Nilson Report newsletter for credit executives, said he thinks Arco will lose a third of its business and start offering credit again.

''Credit cards have always been a marketing tool. They were never meant to make money,'' said Mr. Nilson. He pointed out three problems with the Arco decision to end credit:

* ''The stations will become targets for crime at night because they'll have to carry cash.''

* ''People just don't carry that kind of cash around.''

* ''With cash there are no receipts, and people driving for business will want receipts.''

''Unless everybody discontinues credit at the same time, it will be a disadvantage for the dealers who can't get it,'' said Jack Houston, chairman of the government affairs committee for the Service Station Dealers of America.

Texaco caused a furor among its dealers last fall when it charged them a 3 percent fee on all credit purchases, a surcharge that was recently upheld in a federal court in Philadelphia.

Public hearings were held in Washington last week on a bill sponsored by Rep. Frank Annunzio (D) of Illinois that would prevent oil firms from charging dealers a service fee for credit business.

Mr. Annunzio said the credit is ''really a marketing tool to bring brand loyalty,'' and he contends a dealer in effect has already paid for credit service as a part of the agreement to sell the oil company's product: ''Imposing a fee on the dealer would be charging twice for the same service.''

Given today's gasoline market, he said, the dealers are caught in a squeeze of being unable to pass on the new cost and stay competitive in the price of gas. And with a new service fee, he continued, the oil companies would gain an extra $800 million a year.

Ellis Gunnels, Texaco vice-president for marketing, said at the hearings that credit cards are not bad - they're just expensive. The oil companies now want to share that cost, or have somebody else, such as the dealer, pay for it.

Although the companies are trying to minimize the effect on dealers by lowering the wholesale price of gas, Mr. Annunzio says the price is only likely to rise again when the oil market firms up.

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