== Chip, chip, chip ==

First Arval, now Vodafone. Just what the forecourt sector needs at the moment - big suppliers chip, chip, chipping away at their wafer-thin margins.

Steve Dyer, who runs Thornfalcon Garage in Taunton was one retailer who took part in what was estimated to have been a boycott by 3,500 retailers of Vodafone on July 11. (Although he has now called off plans for a further boycott following advice - ie legal threats - from the company.)

"We didn’t put a sign up or anything," he says. "The cashiers just explained and there was no adverse reaction from them."As Steve points out, there is absolutely no margin for error on top-ups. "So we all lose on this. You lose one £5 top-up - and you will - how long will it take to make it up."

Vodafone is implementing its one percentage point cut on August 1 as it says it wants to spend more on investing in services and marketing to pre-pay customers. (I know because a spokeswoman, clearly reading from her own press release, told me so when I rang Vodafone.) She said the new services would bring more customers in to buy top-ups. So, you’ll have to do more transactions to make the same margin.

Apparently the protesters are also considering giving customers free sim-cards for other networks. Good on you all. And that original number of protesters has risen dramatically even as this is being written. Over 5,250 stores pledged their support within four days of the campaign being launched (website is [http://www.topupratecut.biz]). According to the Association of Convenience Stores, Vodafone has cut commission rates for retailers by three percentage points since it launched the top-up service in 2000. After payment network companies such as Payzone and PayPoint have taken their cut of the new 5.5% commission, many independent shopkeepers will receive just 3.5%. In concession, Vodafone recently promised not to cut the rates again for two years. Nick Birtwistle, head of channel partners at Vodafone UK, said the company had made the commitment after "a lot of feedback".

"Well, that’s big of them," says Steve. "Mind you they couldn’t drop it any further or we will be paying them for the privilege of selling the service."

== Running on air? ==

You can normally charge people for putting air in their tyres... but not in their tanks. A retailer in Wales, who has requested anonymity because he thinks Weights and Measures might come after him, has found that his Dresser Wayne Opus pumps, which should cut out if there is no fuel to dispense, just keep on going.

"You can’t sell air from the pumps," he points out, "and these ones just keep clocking up sales. It only happened on the very odd occasion in the past but lately, with the fuel crisis, it’s happening a lot. And I’d like to meet the person who never runs out of fuel these days."

Dresser Wayne has admitted that there is a problem with the pumps which could be fixed with a modification kit but it is not willing to supply this free because it says it would never be required if correct fuel management was in place (ie, never running out of fuel). The company also told this chap’s pump maintenance guy that, if he whacked it with a hammer, it would reset itself.

The company which installed these pumps for him three years ago is no longer around so he is on his own. He says he only chose Dresser Wayne because he saw that Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury were using them - "although I bet none of them had to pay for this modification," he adds. "And if I get Weights and Measures involved I believe they will put a stop on me."

His question, dear readers, is: has anyone else out there had this problem? And if so, what happened next?

== Free petrol? Not a very good plan ==

Pump problems sometimes come along like number nine buses. Urfan Ahmed found that one of his Gilbarco pumps was giving away free petrol in June.

"We lost 450 litres in 40 minutes. It’s on our CCTV and we believe that it wasn’t calibrated. We’ve never had a problem before but the day before my brother wasn’t happy so we closed off the pump and logged a call to Gilbarco. The engineer came on June 11 and said it was fixed but he did not test or calibrate it. Then all of a sudden the pump was giving out more petrol than it should. We were so busy. Then word seemed to get round and for half an hour people were filling up and only paying for a few litres. We had a rush of taxi drivers." (I guess they were radioing each other.)

Urfan’s biggest beef was that he had installed a real-time monitoring gauge about six months ago, costing £8-9,000 plus installation and drilling, so the company can check. "It monitors the fuel level and matches it to the till and we do a tank test every night. I am worried," adds Urfan. "They will fix the problem, but what about the lost money?"

Gilbarco is investigating the problem.