Oily treatment? Bring your own towel to Shell

When Susan Steedman pulled into the Preston Avenue Shell on the morning of February 24, she wasn't in a mood to suffer frustration lightly. First, it was freezing cold. Second, she'd taken her son to an early-morning doctor's appointment and needed to get him to school. Third, it was Monday.

Things started to go downhill when, needing to check her oil, she began looking for a towel dispenser that actually had towels in it.

Steedman claims she tried five, and they were all out; finally, she wiped the dipstick with a piece of paper from her glove compartment. When she was done at the tank, she went inside and made a beeline for the hot-chocolate machine– which was empty.

She went to the checkout counter and announced that there was no hot chocolate.

"Yeah," she says the woman answered, "I know. The machine's empty."

"I was a little put out," Steedman told me, "but I don't think I was bitchy."

She gave the clerk her Shell card, which wouldn't scan; apparently, her card does that a lot. The clerk tried wrapping it in a plastic bag, which can sometimes help a malfunctioning card to scan, but this time it didn't. At that point, Steedman says, the woman "rolled her eyes."

That was when things started plunging downward fast. Steedman objected to the clerk's eye-rolling. The clerk, according to Steedman, replied, "I didn't eye-roll at you; I eye-rolled at your card." Allegedly, she went on to accuse Steedman of "marching up here, slamming your stuff on the counter– you had attitude."

Steedman denied having attitude. She then asked the employee for her name and says the woman replied, "Why don't you just take a guess?" ("Believe me," Steedman said, "I can think of plenty.")

In the end, the account numbers were entered manually, and Steedman left– but also left her credit card, which she says the employee forgot to return.

Steedman claims she called the station's owner-operator, who said, "Ma'am, I don't believe that's your credit card," because the card is in her husband's name. She explained that it was simply the second card on the account, which is signified by the final digit's being a two. The owner said she could pick it up, which, in the company of a friend, she did.

"I will never go to the Preston Avenue Shell again," Steedman told me. "I don't think I've had an interaction like that, ever."

I dropped by the station on a recent morning and began by checking out the towel dispensers. All four (not five) were empty.

"We have a problem with towels," said the owner, who refused to give his name. Apparently people routinely took several towels when they only needed one, and soon towels were all over the lot. "I was going over to Bodo's to pick up my towels," he said. Now, "I intentionally don't do it. Most people bring their own."

When I tried to ask about the other aspects of Steedman's story, he cut off the interview and forbade me to print anything he'd said. As for Steedman, "Tell the woman to go elsewhere."

I lingered for a bit, trying to talk to both him and the clerk (the same woman who had dealt with Steedman), but the owner was adamant that they'd done nothing wrong.

I asked about the credit card, and he declared, "It's illegal for her to use that card." The clerk, Asha, claimed that Steedman had behaved obnoxiously– and as for the credit card, "She threw it on the floor and left it there."

I spoke with Kathy in Shell Consumer Relations, who assured me that the authorized cardholder (in this case, Steedman's husband) can order secondary cards for anyone he wants, and added, "Most credit cards do it that way." It strikes me as odd that the owner of a gas station wouldn't know this.

As for the rest of Steedman's story, how each of the principals behaved will have to remain a mystery. So here's my Consumer Tip of the Week: If you're planning to check you oil, BYOR– Bring Your Own Rag.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.