Clerks in Line of Fire Over Gas Prices

Tempers are rising along with gas prices. Gas stations across the country report that drivers are taking out their gas rage against big oil by yelling at clerks and cashiers and sometimes driving off without paying.

"Everyone is suffering at the same time," said Sam Shirazie, a clerk at a Chevron station east of downtown Los Angeles. "If I could help to reduce that pain, I would."

No detailed statistics are kept on incidents of gas rage. But the National Association of Convenience Stores said anecdotal evidence indicates they have increased since prices began climbing in February.

Employees of Fleming Corp., which operates 14 gas stations in Kansas and Missouri, have heard everything from "just a mumble-grumble kind of thing to a cheap shot or blaming the clerk for world oil prices," owner Ed Roitz said.

Division manager Ron Davis hears complaints firsthand.

"Out of all our customers, probably 1 percent does the loudest squealing," he said. "I don't want to repeat some of it. They'll talk about the blankety-blank oil companies."

The convenience stores association advises store owners to ensure that employees understand the costs associated with gas, and encourages them to explain to customers that in some cases they aren't making any profits despite the soaring price of fuel. Retailers make about two-thirds of their profits from items inside the store, he said.

But, "don't dismiss customer complaints because we're in the customer service business, and anytime you don't address customer complaints they'll go somewhere else," association spokesman Jeff Lenard said.

Steve Grosse is trying humor to defuse tempers. At his Shell station in Manhattan Beach, he replaced the price of gas with the words "arm," "leg" and "first born."

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 when an upset customer threw a cup of coffee at a female clerk and knocked over display items.

Consumers might finally be getting at least a temporary break at the pump. The latest figures released May 21 by the Lundberg Survey indicate the nationwide average price of self-serve regular fell about 1.45 cents in the previous two weeks to $2.93 a gallon - the first dip since the Feb. 24 price of $2.24 began to climb.

Convenience stores that sell gas are responsible for three-quarters of all gas sales in the United States, Lenard said. But only 3 percent of those stations are owned by oil companies.

Sinai said most of his steady customers understand that he makes just a few cents per gallon and that gas prices are controlled by market forces far beyond his control.

"When I explain that to people they're just totally surprised because they expect us to make a lot more money," he said.

Police in Los Angeles and San Diego - the city with the highest gas prices in the nation - haven't noticed any violent trends toward gas station workers. But there have been gas-related crimes around the nation.

In Austin, Texas, a man was arrested this month on suspicion of stealing hundreds of gallons of fuel from underground tanks while posing as a parking lot cleaner. He sold the gas from his driveway, police said.

In Fond du Lac, Wis., the number of reported cases of customers driving off without paying for gas doubled to 100 in the first four months of this year compared to the first four months of 2005, police Maj. Kevin Lemke said.

"We've talked to a lot of the owners that are having problems and made some suggestions like maybe they need to start thinking about pre-pay," Lemke said, "but in a small community like Fond du Lac they don't want to inconvenience even their good customers because of a few bad customers."

Retailers in other areas have had the same problem with pre-pay, the convenience store association said.

Gasoline theft cost the industry an estimated $237 million in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the group. Some retailers have installed security cameras, increased employee monitoring of pumps and advised workers to greet customers to take away their feeling of anonymity.

An incident last August prompted gasoline industry groups to tell workers not to risk lives by trying to stop drive-offs.

In Fort Payne, Ala., station owner Husain "Tony" Caddi, 54, was killed while grabbing the vehicle of a man trying to drive away without paying for $52 worth of gas.

The driver, Alvin Dwight Benefield, 42, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison.


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