Are You Playing With a Full Deck?
The contemporary payment card landscape can be bewildering once you leave the familiar neighborhood of the big four credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express. There are debit cards, gift cards, quick pay cards, loyalty cards, private label cards, and “fleet cards.” And lurking on the horizon are EMV cards, which stands for Europay MasterCard and Visa, which mark a transition from magnetic stripe cards to “chip cards” — not to be confused with RFID tags and cards. Trying to untangle this complicated jungle is a big job. We’ll take it one step at a time, starting with fleet cards.
The term “fleet card” is currently in use for two very different card types, with radically different capabilities and numbers of cardholders. We can differentiate between these two fleet-card types by calling them “national fleet cards” and “local fleet cards.” As we shall see, local fleet cards are really not fleet cards at all. However, accepting national fleet cards can unlock a whole new revenue stream for wash owners.
Today’s national fleet cards have their origins as far back as the 1940s, when oil companies started to issue cards to vehicle owners for fuel purchases. This makes them one of the oldest forms of payment card. These early petroleum payment cards started out as what would properly be called “private label cards,” a card that is only accepted by a specific retailer, like a Shell or Target card. However, in the ‘50s, oil companies began to accept each other’s cards, forming the basis for the modern national fleet card. Some of the current fleet card issuers started in business as far back as the early ‘80s.
What Are They?
So what do we mean by national fleet cards? These are proprietary payment cards issued by banks or independent corporations. Functioning similarly to credit cards, these cards are issued to companies or government agencies to provide to their vehicle operators and typically can only be used for fuel, maintenance, and — importantly for us — car washes. There are several benefits for entities in using fleet cards. A major one is simplified and lower-cost vehicle expense accounting. Instead of processing individual fuel and maintenance credit card receipts, the entity receives a weekly or monthly statement for all vehicle expenditures.
Another major benefit is improved security and vehicle usage data. Fleet cards allow for tracking of so-called “Level III” data, including the odometer reading, driver or vehicle ID, product type, and unit price as well as date, time, and purchase amount. Unlike “gas cards,” which are private label cards issued by a specific oil company, and which restrict usage to one or a few brands, national fleet cards can be used at virtually any gas station or service center. Some of the larger national fleet card networks provide acceptance at up to 90 percent of all gas stations and service centers.
Who Are They?
There are a number of national fleet card issuers. The major players are WEX (formerly Wright Express), Voyager, FleetCor/GasCard/Fuelman, FleetOne, and MasterCard and Visa Fleet. WEX is the most popular, with nearly 8 million vehicles using their card, which is accepted at over 180,000 sites in the United States. Many of these national fleet card brands began in the trucking industry, where they remain ubiquitous, but most of them have expanded into government and corporate fleets. WEX is currently the issuer for Federal Government fleet cards, including GSA, DoD, DoE, and other federal agencies. WEX also provides the cards for many state governments. A partial list includes Maine, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Arkansas. More states are being added on an ongoing basis. WEX is also becoming popular with tribal governments, counties, and municipalities. The city of Nashville, for instance, uses WEX cards. Many large corporate company car fleets are also on WEX. The pharmaceutical company Merck, for instance, has over 8,000 vehicles on WEX cards. Verizon also uses WEX cards.
Untapped Market For Wash Owners
The number of vehicles on national fleet cards provides a significant untapped market for wash operators. Standalone in-bay automatics and self-serves, however, have not had an automated way to accept these cards until recently, so national fleet cards are simply not on many wash owners’ radar. If you’re in this group, ask around. What fleet card does your state or local government use? Are you near a military base or large federal facility? Does a fortune 500 corporation have a headquarters near your wash? You may be surprised how many vehicles you are missing out on washing. These cardholders are paying cash at your wash, using their personal credit card, or, most likely, going somewhere else where their fleet card is accepted. An attended full serve or an in-bay automatic at a gas station often accepts fleet cards at the cashier or the pump. These competitors are probably aware of national fleet cards and happily serving these cardholders. Odds are they even have a sign indicating they accept Wright Express and/or Voyager.
It is not always simple to determine the issuer of a given government or corporate national fleet card but the cardholder usually knows. WEX has something of a branding issue too, as the result of their recent name change from Wright Express to WEX. Most national fleet cards, such as the GSA cards, feature the issuer logo, but not all. However, there is a bulletproof way to determine where a national fleet card is from, and that is by the “bin number” or ISO number — the first few digits of the card number. If the card number begins with 690046 it is from WEX, 7088 is from Voyager, 707649 or 707685 from Fuelman, and 501486 from FleetOne.
So What's The Problem?
Historically, the automated cashiers used for washes have not been able to accept national fleet cards. This is because accepting these cards requires a more complicated user interaction. Instead of the normal credit card swipe and go, for national fleet cards the credit card system must obtain the “Level III” data from the cardholder. This means that the credit card system must have some form of display, to be able to prompt the cardholder to enter data, and the card system must also have a keypad to allow entry of the data. Typically this data includes the current odometer reading and a driver or vehicle ID, but can vary between card type and even by individual card. The type of data that must be entered is often encoded on the card, which adds another complication for the credit card system. It is only recently that options have become available for automated cashiers to accept fleet cards. Currently a system is available that allows certain auto cashiers to be retrofitted to accept WEX cards. A self-serve-bay card system that will also accept WEX cards will be introduced next.
The Other Fleet Cards
Not all fleet cards are created equal. Perhaps in response to their inability to accept national fleet cards, some automated cashier and credit card retrofit vendors have created their own “fleet card” programs. These are really private label cards disguised as fleet cards. You can issue these cards, good only at your wash(es), to local businesses with a lot of vehicles, but these cards do nothing to allow you to service the millions of vehicles currently on national fleet cards. We call these local fleet cards to differentiate them from what we consider the real fleet cards, the big national fleet card programs. These vendors can co-opt the name, but they simply do not provide the same capability. Sadly, for the wash owner, this can create some confusion.
Where Do We Go From Here?
An unattended wash owner might benefit from setting up a local fleet card program. However, in localities with a high density of national fleet card holders, it makes good business sense to accept these cards. Reaching the millions of vehicles on nation fleet cards requires a cashier upgrade to permit acceptance of these cards at your automatic. If you want card acceptance in your self-serve bays, make sure to choose a retrofit system that can accept national fleet cards.
Finally, just one bit of advice: Most national fleet cards require that the cardholder obtain authorization for charges over $100, so don’t set your wash price that high.
*Bill Dolson is the manager at POS Tech Solutions LLC, a manufacturer of upgrade and retrofit payment-card systems for the car wash industry. You can visit the company on their website or contact Bill via email.