Thursday, March 5, 2009

Who Wants To Save Money On Gasoline? Hands Up!

Back around September of 2008 I had a great idea for sticking it to the likes of Esso, Shell, Petro Canada and the rest of the major gasoline retailers in this country. I'm sure everyone who drives remembers seeing gasoline prices rising steadily over a buck and then to $1.20 and $1.30. In the Greater Toronto Area prices soared to almost $1.40 a litre, and I know in other parts of the country it was even more.

Our federal Competition Bureau is constantly telling us there's no price fixing by gas retailers. That's something I find hard to believe when every station within an hour's drive of where I live charges exactly the same price. On top of that when prices go up or down, all the stations do it in tandem, changing prices by the same amount on the same day at the same time. No price fixing??? Puh-Lease!!!

Of course shortly after my brilliant brainstorm prices at the pumps started falling steadily, getting down close to 60 cents. Now in the GTA prices have again begun creeping up, with regular going for about 85 cents....that's a 40% spike. I haven't heard many people complaining though, except perhaps to say...."Yeah its gone up, but thank god its still under a buck".

The increases this time haven't been as drastic as last summer when a sudden jump of 10 or 15 cents wasn't unheard of. Instead we've seen prices moving up 5 cents, then down a couple pennies...up 3 then down 1. Still I can't help but think a sudden spike isn't that far off...any refinery trouble or geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East could serve as justification (in the eyes of Big Oil) to suddenly send prices up by 15 or 20 cents overnight.

If that starts happening again...I have an idea.
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I'm not going to suggest rotating boycotts...they won't work. People with Esso points will go to Esso regardless, the same goes for Petro and Petro-Points or Shell and AirMiles. On top of that human beings are creatures of habit, someone used to going to the same station for their gas isn't going to stop. The other suggestion I've heard is to try and get people to only put in $5 or $10 a time...which is all I can afford some days. But people who have to drive 50 or more kilometres a day don't want to be stopping constantly for gas.

What I am going to suggest is something much more simple, and it applies specifically to when there's a big jump in price...say a nickel or more a litre. To put that in more tangible terms, a 5 cent increase at the pump means you're paying $2.50 more for a 50 litre fill-up.

Way back when I used to work at a gas station, and though it was about 20 years ago (damn I'm getting old) the procedure for changing prices hasn't changed. If gas jumps from 70 to 80 cents a litre, the first thing the attendant does is change the big electronic sign. Customers in the process of filling up are still paying 70 cents though, because the price on the sign doesn't affect the price at the actual pump. Of course when the big sign changes people stop coming in to fill up.

As soon as there are no more cars pumping gas the attendant programs the new price into the pumps. If someone drives in during this interval they're simply asked to wait a minute...and they can't bitch because the "big sign" says the new higher price. When prices are going down its a lot easier, people are simply asked to wait...'the price is going down'...nobody bitches about waiting a minute when the price drops.

Here's where we can stick it to the Gasoline Companies. If you're filling up at 80 cents and see the big sign switched over to 90 cents, raise your hand in the air and start waving it. I'm sure many drivers can relate to being on the road when prices suddenly spike. You drive around looking for the lower price, but all the stations have signs with the new higher price. Guess what? They may not! If there are still cars pumping its possible they're still charging the lower price, with the attendant waiting for traffic to dry up so he/she can re-program the pumps with the higher price.

Obviously this won't work too well for people who live in rural and less populated areas, but for the majority of Canadians who live in or around a major urban could be a good way to save a few bucks, while sticking it to the likes of Esso and Petro Canada. I'm not suggesting this will bring any of the majors to their knees, but even a small dent in their billion dollar profits would bring a measure of satisfaction.

And don't worry about hurting the little guy...the major brands have driven independent retailers almost totally out of business through predatory pricing. With retailers like Esso the station most often is something like a franchise, with the retailer earning a very small commission for gasoline based on volume. Most of the money made by the individuals running the stations comes from convenience items like cigarettes and other sundries.

So if you're filling up and notice that the price on the big electronic sign jumps by a dime, but the price indicated at the actual pump is still low...Put your hand in the air and wave it around a bit. For those driving around when prices suddenly spike, keep an eye out for someone pumping and waving...and get in line if you must.

Can it work? I don't can if enough people do it. Pretty well everyone knows that if an on-coming car flashes its lights that there's a speed-trap ahead...if you didn't, you do now. That little piece of collective communication came about before the Internet. If you think this can work then share it with everyone you, facebook...whatever.

Maybe we can't bring Big Oil to its knees, but it sure would be nice to kick them in the shins every now and again.

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