Changes on the Cards

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)

I was pleased to hear we no longer have to pay fees when paying for certain items by credit card, but relief turned to dismay when I heard retailers bleating on about a loss of revenue and how they’d put their prices up or impose new fees in order to get their  transaction money back.

Travel companies and ticket agencies save money by not having to maintain a physical space in which to sell us their wares. With most ticket retailing done on-line, people are necessarily going to be paying by some sort of card, so are open to charges. The alternative is for these companies to only accept debit cards, for which no fee is charged. If you’ve recently paid your tax bill on-line you may have noticed that you can no longer pay with a personal credit card. We have no choice whether we pay tax, or to whom we pay it, but we have a choice who we buy tickets from.  I can’t imagine companies stopping people paying by credit card, so they’ll look at other ways to claw back their lost revenue.

Raising our fares to cover credit card fees is not something we can do. It’s not something I’d want to do either in these times of austerity. I also wouldn’t want to go back to the days of charging our customers fees for paying by card.

It’s not right that we were forced into accepting cards, but it’s surely brought us more work. Taking cards has been compulsory for well over a year now. The issue has faded, but there are still nagging concerns. For one, there’s the feeling that we have lost a little of our autonomy. For three hundred years we dealt only in cash and it worked fine.  Finance companies make money out of us for supplying the equipment and processing payments, and it feels uncomfortable entering into financial agreements with outside agencies in order to take a taxi fare – at a cost to ourselves. I don’t get involved with a finance company directly because my equipment is integrated into my ComCab system, but I’ve heard drivers with different arrangements have been threatened with having their machines taken away through under-use: not making enough money for the machine supplier. Taxi garages have also been told to ensure their card machines are used more!

I don’t promote the use of cards. A payment can take two minutes to complete, and there’s always the fear that something will go wrong. Sometimes it does. Customers don’t always find using the keypad easy; possibly because there is a confusion of different systems being used in cabs. I’ve had two people walk off before realising the payments haven’t gone through. I don’t know whether this has been done or purpose. I don’t see the same detail on my ComCab screen as the customer sees on the keypad, fixed out of sight behind my head. If a driver has a major with his system can he get assistance beyond nine to five?

Despite these concerns, it’s better than the alternative of having a mixed fleet of cash-only/card-friendly cabs. The public have confidence they can pay by card when they approach us, and no longer need to walk down a rank asking if we accept cards. This avoids frustration and resentment.

Sadly, I’m no longer waved in to the front of a hotel rank and loaded up for Heathrow while cash-only wallahs sat fuming, but mandatory card acceptance has brought us all more work. It’s not all plain sailing, but the price has been worth paying. And we can hold our heads up and take the moral high ground against those rapacious travel agents.

Has technology made card acceptance more difficult? I remember a time many years’ ago when in a shop or restaurant they’d bring a huge metal machine over. I was only a kid in the 1970s, but I remember it being the size of those contraptions they used to measure your feet with at Clark’s. They’d put your card on the machine and physically swipe it. You’d leave with a carbon copy of the transaction. I assume the retailer would send all their copies off to the credit card company and receive payment in due course. I don’t think there was any wireless technology, and the system was never “down”.  They didn’t need a signal, just a bit of carbon paper. It was simple, but it worked. Why does everything have to be so complicated these days? I know that under TfL rules a hand-held machine isn’t officially allowed, but I wonder if we could still get our hands on those machines?

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