Metro’s ‘slow response’ to problems leads to CVS plans to drop SmarTrip program
Retailer’s decision could affect thousands of rail, bus commuters
Metro’s slow response to repairing faulty SmarTrip equipment available at CVS stores left the retailer “no choice” but to end a nearly decade-old relationship with the transit agency and discontinue the sale of fare cards at the region’s 200 stores, company officials said.
CVS apologized Friday to customers who use the service and said it shares their disappointment, but maintained its plan to terminate the Metro contract at the end of the month.
Metro said it wants to make amends and is asking CVS to reconsider, saying the transit agency is “ready to work through any issues CVS may have.”
The breakup could affect thousands of commuters — particularly bus riders — who use the retail store to buy SmarTrip cards and to add single-trip fares and weekly passes to their fare cards. Metro riders make as many as a half-million SmarTrip purchases and reload transactions at CVS Pharmacy stores in the region each year, according to Metro.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld confirmed Thursday the transit agency is trying to work out a deal with the retailer.
“I’m assuming they’re making a business decision not to do it any longer,” Wiedefeld told reporters. He said the agency would do “anything” to “change that business decision.”
But it may be a long shot to repair the relationship. CVS said it grew tired of problems with the Metro equipment and the agency’s poor response to resolving operational issues.
“Over the past several months, we have been working with [Metro] in an attempt to resolve operational issues that have caused disruption to customer service in our stores, including unsustainably slow response times to repair SmarTrip equipment that frequently malfunctions,” CVS said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, [Metro] could not commit to resolving these issues satisfactorily, which left us with no choice except to exit the SmarTrip program effective May 31,” CVS said.
The drugstore giant offered insight into its decision a day after The Washington Post reported about the loss of the program used heavily by low-income and immigrant transit customers who do not have credit cards and use cash to pay for their fares.
SmarTrip cards are also available at Giant Food stores, commuter stores, college campuses and the Metro sales office at Metro Center. But CVS is by far the largest retailer of the fare cards; it has three times as many stores in the program as Giant.
Transit riders and advocates urged the two parties to reconcile their differences and maintain the service. Although Metro riders have the choice to add cash to their fare cards aboard buses, many say they prefer to do it at the retail store where they can also buy more affordable weekly passes unavailable for purchase on the bus. Adding value to SmarTrip cards aboard the bus also is difficult during busy commutes and holds the buses longer at bus stops.
In a May 1 letter to Metro, CVS gave the agency a month’s notice about ending the agreement and said it would be returning all the transit card inventory. In a response letter May 8, Metro said it tried to salvage the relationship by offering to replace 30 outdated SmarTrip machines available to CVS associates with “newer, more reliable units.” It also offered to replace $10 SmarTrip cards with cards of no value to reduce the cost risk for CVS, the transit agency said.
Metro did not immediately respond to CVS’s claim that the transit agency was slow to respond.
“Your service is indispensable for transit-dependent customers who have no bank accounts or credit cards, and therefore, cannot purchase Metro fares online,” Metro’s Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox and chief financial officer Dennis Anosike wrote in the letter.
Wiedefeld said Metro has made efforts to see whether CVS might continue sales at the 20 most popular locations and is looking for other potential merchants to fill the void. CVS received a portion of the money for each sale, he said.
“It’s for the riders, I mean, it’s for our customers,” Wiedefeld said of the program. “We want to get as many retail opportunities for people, particularly people that don’t have opportunities to get our fare media, so we’ll continue to do that. Obviously they’re a big player and we hate to lose them, so obviously we’ll try to work with them.”
CVS said Friday it has been pleased to participate in the SmarTrip program and will consider keeping it in some stores, but with conditions: “We remain willing to discuss options to continue participating in SmarTrip in a smaller number of stores as we have previously offered, provided that [Metro] commits to resolving the issues we have raised with them, including properly operating equipment and transparent financial accountability.”
CVS did not explain what it meant by “transparent financial accountability.”
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.
CVS officials say the retailer will discontinue the sale of Metro’s SmarTrip cards at the region’s 200 stores by the end of this month. The transit agency says it is trying to work out a deal with CVS, which has complained of lagging maintenance.