October 21, 2014

Gasoline station owners cope with customers who don

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Increasing ‘drive-offs’ parallel steep price hikes

By Michelle Edelbaum
Observer Staff

An increasing number of gasoline thefts in Williston and across the state may translate into higher prices for consumers.

With the price topping $3 per gallon, gasoline thefts, often referred to as “drive-offs,” squeeze profit margins and force station owners to carefully monitor pumps.

“I’m sure the price of gas tends to turn honest people the other way,” said Joe Marriott, manager of the Short Stop Mobil at Taft Corners.

Marriott said that five customers in the past week filled their tanks and did not pay before fleeing the station. Three of the thefts happened on the same day.

That’s more than usual for the station, which usually has one or two incidents per week, Marriott said. The value of gasoline thefts ranged from $7 to more than $50.

Officer Jason Brownfield responded to many of the recent reports of drive-offs. “I can’t really say why they’re doing it,” he said. “Could I guess it’s because gas prices are so high? Yeah.”

“I think that people do it as a matter of economics,” said Shane Sweet, executive vice president and director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.

Sweet said he heard from Vermont gas station owners that drive-offs are up and fuel volume is down. With profit margins for station owners at less than 10 percent and credit card companies receiving a 2-3 percent service fee on each transaction, Sweet said station owners have to sell a lot of gas and convenience store items to make up for the profits they lose in drive-offs. Many stations are also being allocated less fuel than they previously received, complicating the situation, Sweet said.

“This is a cents per gallon over cost business,” he said. “In a drive-off market, retailers get squeezed just like consumers do. If you’re going to survive, you can’t sustain taking drive-offs and not pass that on to customers at some point.”

In response to the increased number of thefts, Marriott has added staffing and advised employees to be more alert.

“We have to be more vigilant and have two people on at all times,” Marriott said. “We’re watching the pumps really closely.”

Other gas stations are responding similarly, said Marriott, pointing to a Colchester station that has one employee whose sole task is to monitors the pumps.

Allen Lemieux of Clark’s Sunoco in Williston, said when prices rose at the end of August he had several drive-offs, but since requiring prepayment on several pumps there haven’t been any more thefts.

Sweet said he approached the Vermont Attorney General’s Office about having all stations require prepayment after hearing from a colleague that all gasoline customers in Illinois must pay before pumping.

“There’s no theft, period, if you prepay and then pump, versus pump and hopefully get paid,” Sweet said.

He acknowledged that requiring prepayment could pose a problem for gas station owners who have older pumps without credit card readers. It is also inconvenient for customers who want transactions to be as quick as possible.

In addition to insisting on prepayment, Sweet said that some stations have installed video surveillance equipment.

Marriott said employees at his station are trying to ensure thieves are apprehended, providing a description of the vehicle and driver and a license plate number to police. Unfortunately, he said, the plates don’t always match the vehicle, making it difficult for police to apprehend suspects, said Marriott.

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