Choosers can’t be beggars

Op-ed

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About a year ago, I pulled into a gas station near my home and noticed something new, but not surprising. Signage indicated a new “pay first policy”. In other words, unless you were lucky enough to pull up to one of the two pumps with working pay-at-the-pump, you would need to go into the store, pre-pay for your gas, and then go back out to pump it.

Well, I quickly discovered through simple observation (I patronize my local store quite a lot) that there are two kinds of small town folks. Some were irate at the change, acting downright insulted that as lifelong residents and regular customers of a store in our quaint small town, they weren’t trusted to pump before paying. I heard whisperings of the classic “I’m going to take my business elsewhere!” Unfortunately, signs I have noticed on the door since then reminding customers that verbal abuse is not tolerated suggest that some customers took their complaints much too far. This is, in a nutshell, not cool.

The other type of customer I observed was the understanding one, realizing that the friendly and hard-working couple who own the store must be dealing with a lot of thefts to have implemented such a rule. These customers were respectful and didn’t fuss. I like them.

I don’t have an exact timeline, but I don’t believe the “pay first” policy lasted more than a week. It could be because the irate customers were becoming too much, or it could be because too many of them really were taking their dollars elsewhere. Either way, things soon returned to normal, and it was once again possible to pump solely resting on the trust of the store owners.

More recently, the rule returned to this same gas station, and as far as I can tell, was quickly removed again. I have often heard suggestions that the “pay first” rule should be implemented at another particular area gas station that suffers a lot of gas theft. And yet another station recently became the subject of a scathing social media complaint when an unsatisfied customer felt offended at the “pay first” rule and decided to go to another station. Who is right? Struggling station owners, or angry customers?

A couple of decades ago, when pay-at-the-pump was growing in popularity, I remember thinking what a dumb idea it was. Correction: it’s an excellent idea from a customer service and convenience perspective. But I was always told that gas stations make a pittance on gasoline sales. An average estimate I have seen is that stations make a profit of 1-2 cents per litre of gas sold. For many gas station owners, the convenience of offering gas and diesel for sale is just an enticement to get customers to buy snacks, drinks and other impulse items when they come in to pay for their gas. Pay-at-the-pump therefore seems like a self-defeating invention.

Considering how many customers get bent out of shape about a “pay first” policy, it seems it may be just as worthy of the expression “shooting yourself in the foot” as pay-at-the-pump. But surely gas station owners consider this before making the difficult decision to institute such a policy? If that’s the case, it must be rough in the gas industry right now. Imagine someone stealing $100 worth of gas that you paid $99 for. Even at 2 cents a litre in profit, you now must sell 4,950 litres of gas to recoup your loss. That works out to about 82 fill ups of an average bone dry tank. Gas station owners can’t afford these types of losses.

Most of us were told growing up that beggars can’t be choosers. The opposite is also true. Choosers can’t be beggars. There is no shortage of gas stations in our area, and therefore lots of choice. If you’re begging for a change in policy, it stands to reason that it’s because you like that particular gas station, maybe because it’s close to your home, or because you really want to keep it in business because your small town can’t afford to lose its only store, or one of its only stores. I highly suggest taking some of that “keep local businesses open” energy, and letting gas station owners implement the policies that they need to in order to stay running. It’s a bad economy, thefts are high, and survival based policies aren’t personal. If you seriously can’t take such a small blow to your fragile ego, please don’t take it out on staff, and don’t be a beggar. Instead, be a chooser, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

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