Herbert Simmons is the District of Columbia's director of consumer affairs, and like the people in the American Express commercials, he always figured that if merchants didn't recognize him at least they'd take his American Express card.
But when he took his watch in to be repaired not long ago, Simmons discovered that even the top consumer cop in town isn't immune to hassles, and sometimes the gold card is no help at all.
To pay for his watch repairs--at one of downtown's prestigous jewelers--Simmons offered his credit card.
Sorry, said the clerk, no credit cards for repairs.
What about the sign on the door? asked Simmons.
Oh, well, we do take American Express, but not for repairs, was the reply, as Simmons tells it.
Some consumers might make a scene, others would stomp away vowing never to return. Simmons complained to American Express, called his general counsel, and set in motion a series of events that could affect every consumer and business credit card user in Washington.
Refusing to accept credit cards for certain purchases, setting minimum purchases for credit transactions or otherwise restricting the use of cards is a violation of the District's consumer protection law, as Simmons reads it.
"If they put up the sign that says 'American Express welcome here' , they have to take the card for everything," insists Simmons.
The D.C. Consumer Office is prepared to enforce that decision, on the grounds that it is false advertising, a misrepresentation to the public, to offer to accept credit cards, then to impose limits on the use of the card. "It's like bait and switch," says Simmons.
That absolutist decree means gas stations can't take credit cards for purchases of tires, batteries and accessories and refuse to let customers charge their gasoline purchases, he added.
Simmons' ruling will dismay merchants who routinely limit credit transactions to avoid having their profits eaten up by credit card handling costs. Few businesses can afford to process the paperwork and wait for payment on a credit card purchase of $5 or less. Gas stations that are making pennies a gallon on cash sales barely break even after taking a 3 percent to 5 percent discount on credit card invoices.
Simmons concedes that most businesses don't know they're breaking the local law by limiting credit card use, and says that is typical of the regulations his office enforces.
The District boasts the toughest consumer law in this area, a statute giving Simmons' staff subpoena power and enforcement tools that no other local jurisdiction has.
Right now the agency is challenging the "no returns, no refunds" policy of the area's most successful women's sportswear discount chain, is forcing some major merchants to change their layaway rules to conform to D.C. regulations, and is cracking down on drug stores that don't post prescription prices as required by local law.
But the District consumer law is little understood and many of its provisions are widely ignored, says the consumer affairs activist, an unReagan-ized regulator who isn't about to leave consumer protection to the forces of the marketplace.
If not even the American Express card works for Washington's top consumer advocate, consider the plight of Allegheny Beverage Corp. Chairman Mort Lapides, who is on the verge of becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of corporate raiders.
A week ago Lapides roared to the rescue of Wickes Corp., a conglomerate dinosaur drowning in red ink, offering to throw a life raft tied to a $600 million line of credit, and what did Wickes say?
Allegheny who? You help us? No respect for a $400 million soft-drink company offering to rescue a $4 billion retail giant.
Instead of grabbing the raft, Wickes' top management walked the plank. Half a dozen top executives "resigned" or "took early retirement," and two-thirds of the directors quit after a new chief executive was hired last week.
New Wickes boss Sanford Sogoloff subscribes to the Vietnamization theory of corporate comebacks--strip the company in order to save it. He apparently hopes to dump as many of Wickes' unprofitable divisions as necessary for the company (or what's left of it) to remain afloat on its own.
Lapides, meanwhile, is still holding out his lifeline, and anybody who's watched Allegheny in the last couple of years ought to realize that Lapides is a businessman to be reckoned with.
Lapides took on the powerful Coca-Cola Co. last year when he thought Coke was trying to squeeze out his Pepsi-Cola franchise, and took over the Macke Co. when Macke underestimated his persistence. Macke executives voiced disdain when the much smaller Allegheny began buying their stock, but now Macke is a subsidiary of Allegheny.
With almost 5 percent of Wickes' stock in his control already and a long credit line in hand, Lapides deserves more respect than he's getting.
Bill Jones is a tough act to follow. In more than a decade at The Washington Post, he chronicled the growth of the private sector of Washington's economy through his Capital Commerce and Keeping Posted columns and in the pages of Washington Business--perhaps the most successful, most imitated local business tabloid in the country.
Jones' departure as deputy financial editor to take the top public relations job at Potomac Electric Power Co. coincides with a complete change of command at The Post's business and finance section.
Peter Silberman, assistant managing editor for business, has become AME/national in charge of The Post's national news coverage. Frank Swoboda moves up to be the business editor--or AME/business, in office jargon. Succeeding Swoboda as news editor for the business section is reporter Peter Behr. Reporter Jerry Knight takes over from Jones as deputy financial editor and Lois Reed Munday becomes editor of Washington Business.
The Capital Commerce column concentrating on the local business community was taken over earlier by former Washington Star staffer Rudolph A. Pyatt, and Jones' Keeping Posted is being replaced by Knight's new column, called Monday Morning--as in Monday morning quarterbacking or Monday morning management, one of the pitfalls and privileges of business journalism.