Discolor Online

Weblog of the sweetest person you never want to piss off.


Zipcar: It's No Flexcar

Longtime readers know that I was a big fan of Flexcar and used the service for over four years before they merged with Zipcar. Things had started to go downhill with the car-sharing when the Washington State Department of Revenue insisted on charging a car "rental" tax of 9.7% on Flexcar users. That situation was never reversed or resolved, despite last year's assurances from my representative Margarita Prentice that that she was "pleased to report the Governor's office, the Department of Revenue and others are working on language that will address the differences between a rental car company and a 'flexcar' program."

I've been living with Zipcar for a while now and I have to say that it reminds me all too much of my experience of being a happy Homegrocer.com subscriber who then saw things go dramatically downhill after the merger with Webvan, much as another disappointed subscriber's opinion piece from 2001 details here. When the Zipcar/Flexcar merger hit the news, company spokespeople and optimistic users were spouting off about how "increased access to cars" through the merger would be great and "outweigh" concerns over shrinking competition. Uh huh.

Erica Barnett at The Slog (Seattle's free weekly paper The Stranger's blog, for those outside the area) blogged about Zipcar's perceived flaws and failures back in February. Higher monthly minimums and higher hourly rates, hybrids classified under "premium" rates alongside luxury vehicles, stiff penalties for "infractions" (5 minutes late returning even though no one else had reserved the car for use? $50 fine!) instead of credits and incentives for pitching in, fees to talk to an actual person to address any issues, etc. These things combined with the fact that we're also paying 9.7% state "rental car" tax, 6.5% state sales tax, and 2.5% King county/RTA tax makes the whole carshare prospect a lot less attractive than it used to be.

Last week was perhaps my worst week ever with Zipcar. Monday the 14th they announced that they were rearranging their pricing, focusing on the fact that they were lowering the rate on hybrids. Had they not raised the price on hybrids (not to mention replaced my local hybrid with a bare bones Subaru) I might have celebrated that news, but I would not have been celebrating for long because that mail was immediately followed by another mail that announced that they were removing my local Zipcar location altogether, immediately. As in had probably already been done by the time I received the mail at 6:30pm. A third e-mail told of the awesome new gas cards and how to use them (this will be important to the story later).

Thursday I reserved a Zipcar for the day. My nearest option is now 2 miles away instead of six blocks. I arrived at my car and opened it up to find shards of glass from a previously broken window strewn throughout the car. Someone had replaced the window and cleaned up most of the glass but there were still shards everywhere (the seats and the floor, front and back, the dashboard, everywhere). The driver's side door armrest had also been ripped away from the door and was still partially detatched. I called to report the damage, but where with Flexcar I had the option of talking to an actual person, Zipcar automates the damage report. I had no idea if Zipcar wanted me to continue with my reservation or if this was something they might have wanted to investigate further right away... but I needed the car and was on a schedule so I had to take it as it was. At the end of my reservation I needed to stop for gas because the car was completely empty. I almost never let the car get that low but this was an unfamiliar car and the gas gauge was in a different location and I flat out missed it until the little red gas pump came on to warn me to fill up. At that point I discovered that my car had not yet been outfitted with its (and I quote) "more stylish, more reliable and more efficient gas card" but the old card that remained in the car no longer worked. I called customer service and chose the option to speak to an actual person (which may or may not have cost me $3.50). However, speaking to an actual person did me no good. She had no clue about the old cards, seemed to be only on hand to talk to people who couldn't figure out the new cards and when her script didn't cover my situation she told me that my only option was to pay to put gas in the car myself and send in the receipt. "You won't be charged as long as there's at least a quarter tank," she chirped. Awesome. Car now 2 miles away, had to deal with broken glass all over, and got to spot Zipcar a full quarter tank of gas on my dime.

I suppose you can tell that I'm feeling a little disgruntled over this, but it gets better! Today I received an e-mail about a damage inquiry on my former local Zipcar. "We are not assigning blame, we are simply following up on the report that we received," the letter read, and then goes on in the very next sentence, "Per our Member Agreement (section 9.6), damages incurred during a member's reservation are the responsibility of that member." Now, this is not an inquiry about the car I just recently used, but a vehicle I last drove A MONTH AGO, on June 20th. In my history with Flexcar I've been diligent about reporting damage, so much so that when I called to report that a pebble had kicked up on the freeway and dinged the windshield they told me not to worry about reporting it unless the windshield was actually cracked. Now, a month after I've used the car they're going to try to put some damage off on me? Oh, I know, I know, they say they're just investigating and not assigning blame but after last week I'm not feeling very generous towards Zipcar. In fact, if they do decide that the damage somehow happened on my watch and I'm responsible for it at this point, you can bet that's the day when I become a FORMER Zipcar member in a right hurry.

It's like Homegrocer all over again. I'll still be missing Flexcar after Zipcar is gone.

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Anonymous juliemarg Says:

Give 'em Hell Harriet! It's amazing to me that businesses haven't learned they need better customer service in the internet age. Don't they know anything about reputation management?

Anonymous Anonymous Says:

They probably figure that competition management is the functional equivalent. Become a virtual monopoly and your reputation worries aren't a concern.


Blogger Nightfall Says:


Well if you'd like I can sell you my 1996 Pontiac Sunfire. It's old but it still has pretty decent mpg (31) It's no spring chicken sure but eh. ;)


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