A sleazy fast-food app

In many ways, the Sonic Drive-In chain has a great smartphone app. You can store your Sonic gift cards on the app, and use the app to pay for your meal at the restaurant. It’s easy and (usually) works well. Recently, the app added a pre-order feature that allows you to order your food before you even arrive at the restaurant.

That’s all well and good. But I have a pet peeve with the app, and it was magnified by a technical glitch that happened today when I stopped at Sonic for lunch.

My pet peeve is this: Let’s say you have $4 left on your gift card (let’s just ignore the physical card at this point, and say that you have $4 left on your Sonic account). You stop at Sonic and place an order for a meal that costs $5. Ideally, you should, if that’s your choice, be able to use up the $4 in your account and then pay the remaining $1 some other way — cash, debit card, what have you.

At the very least, the app should reload your account with just the $1 you need for that day’s purchase. Then, if you want to load more later, it’s your choice to do so.

But that’s not how it works. In the scenario above, if you were trying to pay for a $5 meal and only had $4 left on your account, the app would automatically reload at least $10 to your account. In practice, unless you can figure out some combination of menu items that exactly equals the balance on your account, you are trapped in a constant cycle of reloading the card — which is exactly what Sonic wants you to do. It’s sleazy and unethical.

I’ve complained about this to Sonic before, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I would stop using the app.

Today, I was on my way back to Shelbyville from Bedford Lake. I was already in a bad mood because I had gone on a sort of wild goose chase which wasted a bunch of my time and did not result in a usable news story. I stopped at Sonic.

I knew that I would be stuck with an automatic reload, because the lunch I was ordering cost more than what was left in my account.

But, get this — the app reloaded $10 to my account, and then — due to some unspecified “technical issue” — it refused to use that money to pay for my meal! I ended up having to pay for my meal separately, with a debit card.

Now, let me make clear, I’m not out any money — the unspent $10 reload is still in my Sonic account. But I had to spend twice what I intended to spend today, through no fault of my own, and I’m locked into using that $10 at Sonic on some future visit.

I was mad as all get-out, and composed an appropriately-nasty note at Sonic Drive-In’s customer feedback web page. I don’t know if I’ll get any sort of response from the company.

Gift cards are already a good deal for the companies that offer them — you are, in effect, loaning them your money interest-free, from the time you purchase the card until the time you redeem it. And, in some cases, a few pennies left on a gift card go unredeemed, which is free money for the card issuer. There’s no need for the companies to also adopt greedy and unethical polices that lock you into reloading money on an account. Sonic should be ashamed.