Increase in oil prices fuels concerns

Residents shop for best oil deal

February 20, 2000

Clem Miller's customers mostly shake their heads in disbelief.

"You get shock from customers," said Miller, vice president of Canton Oil Co. "They don't believe prices are so high."

Miller has been getting that reaction from residents in Canton, Highlandtown and Dundalk, where his company delivers home heating oil to about 1,000 customers.

With oil prices rising, Miller's company has been forced to raise prices when he has to pay more at wholesale.

Typically, he adds 20 cents to his wholesale price, so oil he buys at $1.30 per gallon sells for $1.50 per gallon. Prices have ranged from $1.50 to $1.80 a gallon recently, he said.

"We have to pass our increased costs to the consumer," Miller said. "We're not making any more money. We're losing money because people are stretching what they've got and not buying. They're being more frugal and using less. It's been a terrible year."

On a recent day, the company ordered 2,000 gallons of fuel and got it in the truck as prices rose again by 20 cents.

"We sold it for the same price we bought it for and made nothing," Miller said.

Though Canton Oil's competitors all have reacted by passing along higher costs, customers are shopping around.

Many of the phone calls to Canton Oil's South Newkirk Street office come not from residents placing orders but from comparison shoppers seeking the day's prices.

"We try to have reasonable prices," Miller said. "We try to give the lowest price" possible.

Business has slowed to between three and five deliveries per day. Sales have dropped by about 30 percent, as customers opt to conserve oil rather than replenish supplies, Miller said.

The price increases hit especially hard because warmer winters over the past couple years have hurt business.

Canton Oil is using one of its two fuel trucks. The company employs four people, including drivers. One driver also maintains the trucks because there's not enough work.

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