Cities across America are slowly starting to reopen their economies and, little by little, consumers are making their way back into stores and seeking long-delayed services from haircuts to teeth cleanings.
But before you make a purchase or book an appointment, watch out for increases from pre-pandemic prices. In response to and to protect against the spread of Covid-19, many businesses and service providers are charging customers more. Many businesses are adding surcharges to offset the cost of added safety measures, for example, like personal protective gear for employees or sanitation supplies.
"Most consumers understand that Covid has increased the costs for businesses, especially small businesses," says Linda Sherry, Consumer Action's director of national priorities. Adding that surcharges "are real, and popping up all over."
If you see a "Covid surcharge" on your next bill, don't be surprised. Here's where you might bump into these charges, and why:
Here are three ways to avoid these surcharges, or, if you can't, factor them into your budget.
To avoid being surprised by an extra charge when you arrive at a business, Sherry recommends calling ahead to ask in advance if you can expect a price change related to Covid.
"When calling to make an appointment, ask: 'Has the cost of your services gone up because of Covid closures, new sanitary processes, etc.?'" Sherry says. That way, you can do your research ahead of time and search for businesses that offer similar products or services that charge a smaller fee or don't have one at all.
It doesn't hurt to shop around. But Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director at Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, warns that "in certain areas of the country, consumers may find that these fees are standard, at least for the time being." In other words, depending on your location, you may be hard pressed to find a salon or restaurant in your area that doesn't tack on a surcharge.
Video by Courtney Stith
As a consumer, it's your right to know what you're paying for. Sometimes, that requires asking a few questions.
"If there are new surcharges, the consumer needs to ask what the surcharge covers in order to determine if they can negotiate the fee," Couch-Friedman says. "For instance, if [the fee] covers the cost of a mask or hand sanitizer, the customer could offer to bring their own."
In general, businesses benefit from being forthcoming about any new charges, and springing fees on customers without explanation could put a dent in consumer trust. "An informed consumer is a more satisfied consumer and more likely to return," Couch-Friedman says.
Consumers, on the whole, do not like being hit with surprise fees — 86% of respondents told Amex that if a business they frequently patronize were to start surcharging, they would likely start shopping somewhere else, according to a recent survey from CreditCards.com.
That's why it's to the business's benefit to be upfront about the fees, says Ted Rossman, industry analyst at Bankrate. "I'm seeing things like $3 at a hair salon and 5% at a restaurant, which is only $1.25 on a $25 meal. That makes me feel even more strongly that businesses have more to lose in the court of public opinion than to gain, in terms of revenue, when they add Covid surcharges."
If surcharges and higher fees are the new reality, at least for a while, you'll want to factor them into your overall costs or find workarounds so you're not paying them as frequently. For example, if your salon tacks on a surcharge, consider stretching out the time between haircuts and DIYing some of your trims. If your restaurant fees add up, maybe put more money towards groceries and cooking at home.
Ultimately, it's up to you to figure out what costs you're willing to accept, says Sherry: "If consumers want to support a specific business, they can accept the added costs, whether they come in the form of an add-on charge or higher prices."
Remember too that small businesses are fighting to keep their doors open and pay staff. A little extra money, if you can afford to part with it, could go a long way towards keeping your favorite shop open.
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