Prepay rubbing some peninsula customers the wrong way

Losses change gas-up format

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

In response to an increase in the number of people driving off without paying for gasoline, many service stations are now demanding payment before gasoline is dispensed.

Williams Express projects its loss in 2002 will be 260,000 gallons of gasoline taken by thieves driving off without paying in Alaska, according to Jeff Cook, vice president of external affairs.

Rik Bucy, general manager for Tesoro North stores -- Tesoro 2 Go -- estimates that company's loss to be "several hundred thousand dollars" in the Fairbanks, Matanuska-Susitna, Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula market areas.

All 29 Williams Express stations went to "prepay" Sept. 1. Tesoro 2 Go stations became prepay Sept. 30. Other stations, including many independently operated Tesoro stations and Chevron stations on the Kenai Peninsula, have not switched to prepay for fear they would inconvenience customers and drive them away.

Cook said that while some customers are unhappy with the change, Williams has not noticed any "perceptible loss in business."

"Any loss would be offset by not having any more thefts," he said.

In addition to combating gasoline theft, Cook said the move to prepay also is considered a safety measure because thieves intending to drive away without paying often lay the gasoline pump handle down on the driveway so an attendant is not alerted to the fact that a pump has stopped dispensing fuel.

When the pump handle is properly replaced on the pump, an alarm sounds inside the store indicating a customer is finished getting fuel.

Cook said the problem of what the industry calls "drive-offs" has gotten so bad in some states that punishment of apprehended offenders now includes revocation of the person's driver's license.

Alaska is not one of those states, he said, and he is not aware of any such legislation being proposed here.

"It's one of those crimes that doesn't get punished," he said.

Bucy said Tesoro 2 Go business has been affected by the move to prepay, noting a slight drop occurred in the first two weeks.

"The drop in volume has not caused us to suffer a loss in profitability," he said.

Bucy agreed that punishment for driving off without paying for gasoline is not severe.

"A person contemplating driving off says, 'A. I won't get caught, or B. If I get caught, I'll only have to pay for the gas.'"

Attendants at one Tesoro 2 Go station in Soldotna acknowledged that drive-offs were a problem, with thieves making off with anywhere from $1 or $2 to $50 or $100 in gas, but said, "Customers hate prepay."

"You've heard the phrase, 'someone's gone postal,' well, they don't go postal now, they go prepay," said assistant manager Tina Wegener.

"One guy kicked the gas pump" when he learned he needed to come into the store to pay before pumping his gasoline, attendant Melinda Alexander said.

The two agreed that the worst reactions to prepaying for gasoline are coming from 30- to 40-year-old males.

"Surprisingly, teen-agers have adapted to it the best and the fastest," said Wegener.

Romi Haseo, manager of a Tesoro station on the Sterling Highway in the center of Soldotna that is not going to prepay, said, "Prepay is punishing the honest people."

In fact, the station is advertising on its marquee that prepay is not required.

"The sign is helping business," Haseo said.

"We get a lot of people coming from the Tesoro 2 Go across the street. They say prepay is a nuisance," she said.

"When I was deciding whether to put up the sign, I had a staff meeting with the employees and they all agreed we should and they would watch the pumps carefully," said Haseo.

One fear she had was that thieves who had previously been driving off at other stations would now look for somewhere else to commit the crime.

"If employees are doing their job right, you won't have drive-offs," said one attendant at a Chevron station in Kenai.

John Straughn, manager of that station on the Kenai Spur Highway and Willow said he has seen some increase in business since the Tesoro across the street went to prepay.

"There's been some increase in business ... nothing extravagant," he said.

Ray Meier, manager of the Soldotna "Y" Chevron, which also hasn't required prepayment, said, "We're still trusting the public."

The station employs surveillance cameras as an added security measure.

To date, stations in the Homer area have not changed.

"At this point, we have no plans to go prepay," said Susie Quinn, manager of the Petro Express Tesoro station in Homer.

"We've only had minimal problems with drive-offs. We might change if all the others go to prepay," she said.

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