- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Drivers frustrated with paying $3-plus at the pump are taking out their “gas rage” on station clerks and managers, yelling at them and sometimes driving off without paying.

Zahid Wahlla has managed the Kent Island Gateway Shell, the first gas station after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the way to the beach, for four years. Now he is thinking about selling it because of angry customers and slowing sales.

Even though Memorial Day weekend was the station’s busiest weekend in the past six months, business is slower than it has been since he opened the station.

“We used to be really busy,” said Mr. Wahlla, but pump sales in May were 40,000 gallons less than a year ago.

“Some people get angry and pick on me because maybe they think I am doing something wrong,” he said.

One customer verbally attacked Mr. Wahlla because he had seen lower prices in another state and thought Mr. Wahlla was pocketing the difference. Mr. Wahlla said that when he attempted to explain why the price was high, the customer continued his tirade. “He didn’t want to understand it.”

The National Association of Convenience Stores calls these actions “misdirected consumer anger at higher prices.”

Drivers in the Washington area have paid more than $3 for a gallon of regular gasoline for almost 40 days, the longest period in history, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Customers also are driving away from the pump without paying. Even though Maryland and the District require customers to prepay or use a credit card before pumping gas, people still drive away without paying.

They use a variety of scams, said Annette Baik, owner of the Stevensville Citgo on Kent Island, where families stop on the way to the beach. They typically say that they will pay later or that their credit card isn’t working, said Ms. Baik, whose store didn’t experience any significant changes in traffic over the holiday weekend, the unofficial start of the summer driving season.

Even the most scrupulous person would be tempted to steal gasoline, said John Townsend, manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic. The automobile association reports that theft of gasoline and convenience store products has risen with gas prices.

In Manhattan Beach, Calif., Steve Grosse is trying humor to defuse tempers. At his Shell station, he replaced the price of gas with the words “arm,” “leg” and “firstborn.”

In Los Angeles, Chevron station co-owner Anthony Sinai has started giving free sodas to customers who pump $20 worth of gas. He wants to avoid a repeat of an incident last year in which an upset customer threw a cup of coffee at a female clerk and knocked over display items.

Although gas rage against station managers and clerks is being reported nationwide, cases in the Washington area have been “isolated,” Mr. Townsend said.

What’s more telling is that not only are the customers angry, but the station owners also are exhibiting gas rage.

“How can someone even afford to exist?” said one frustrated station owner in Prince George’s County who would not give his name or exact location. For the first time, dozens of service station operators are complaining to AAA, Mr. Townsend said.

“Literally, the gas station operator can say, ‘I share your pain,’ because I am feeling the same pain just as you are,” he said. “These prices are hurting not only consumers, but the store operators.”

Store operators must buy the gasoline from their providers at a set price, which many complain is too high. To compete with neighboring stations, profit margins must be kept close to zero. Any markup drives customers away.

Costumers complain to David Han, owner of a New York Avenue Exxon Mobil Station, “all the time,” he said. From the customers, he typically hears, “It’s too high” or “I am going to ride a bike or ride the Metro.” “Every opinion is different,” Mr. Han said. “I try to explain it to them.”

There is some sign that customers are listening. Ray Prizadeh, owner of a New York Avenue Citgo, said anger was higher in April, when the price of gasoline spiked. That’s when consumers began to ask questions, he said. Other station owners agreed that consumers are becoming better-educated about who sets the price.

“Now they have to cut other things to compensate for the extra cost of gasoline,” he said. His customers remain frustrated, but they have come to expect high prices.

“They are not angry at us,” said Fikremariam Mengesha, manager of an area Shell station. “They know more than they used to.”

Still, many station managers continue to find themselves the recipients of customers’ anger.

Said the Prince George’s County station owner: “We are being pushed between a rock and a hard place.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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