Signs of strain

$3 gas raises the question: Where does it stop?

Motorists scramble to absorb price shocks

At the pump

April 25, 2006|By RONA MARECH AND JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | RONA MARECH AND JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTERS

Gas prices are rising, jaws are dropping, and although consumers say they feel helpless, they're adjusting their behavior - and trying any trick they can, logical or not - in an attempt to deal with those crazy, rolling numbers at the pump.

They are driving less, taking public transit, fueling up early and often, buying in dribs and drabs or - dreading the price tag - waiting until the gas gauge is well past empty to face the inevitable.

"We've been busy all week - I guess people are afraid prices are going to go up more," said Joan Cullison, the cashier at Carroll Independent Fuel, which was selling the cheapest fuel ($2.95 a gallon) at the gas-buying hot spot at Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road yesterday.

In particular, Cullison has noticed an early morning rush: Fifteen cars swinging by around 5:30 a.m., compared with the tiny smattering she sees that early on a typical weekday.

"People are getting in before they go to work because they're worried when they come out it's going to go up again. It's getting very scary now, isn't it?" she said. The early birds, she added, have a point: Prices recently went up two times in one day, she said.

Kenneth Marshall saw prices rise before his eyes.

He didn't need gas yesterday afternoon, but the retired bus driver couldn't pass up the Royal Farms on Joppa Road in Loch Raven, where Enroy regular was selling for $2.93 per gallon. As he and his wife waited in line at the crowded station, two men in bright blue polo shirts emerged with a ladder and a pile of oversized letters to post a 6-cent mark-up. He jogged to the cashier to pay for his $10 of gas, just squeaking in at the lower price.

"I think this is the last time we'll see $2.93," he said. "Maybe ever."

Yvette Roy, 38, of Perry Hall made it to within 10 feet of the gas pump when her Ford Explorer sputtered and completely ran out of gas yesterday. She blamed her displeasure with gas prices - and her bad habit of ignoring that pesky little fuel light.

"I haven't wanted to fill it all the way up because it's so expensive," she said. "So I've been getting $20 here and $25 there, every two days. And the price keeps going up."

Roy works two jobs: one with the Social Security Administration and a part-time gig at Blockbuster. The money from her second job, she says, covers just gas and car insurance.

She waited for her receipt, reading it aloud as it curled out of the machine at the pump. "Sixty-six dollars for 22 gallons. Have a nice day? Yeah, you have a nice day, too," she said to the slip of paper in her hand.

Average gas prices in Maryland yesterday were $2.96 per gallon, compared with $2.21 this time last year, said Ragina Averella, the public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. The national average was $2.91.

"The unfortunate reality is that gas prices will likely continue to increase somewhat over the next few weeks," she said.

Some area stations have run out of gas - including a Shell station on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City and an Exxon station on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. But those outages have been brief, Averella said. For the most part, they are the result of stations having to flush out their tanks before switching from an MTBE blend to gas with ethanol, a corn-based additive considered safer. There is not a crude oil or gasoline shortage, she said.

High pump prices are affecting the election-year political debate in the state, with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor - scheduled to hold a press conference in Baltimore today to talk about potential price gouging.

State lawmakers looked into the issue when gas prices spiked after Hurricane Katrina, but they failed to pass a bill during the recently concluded legislative session that would have targeted price gouging. At the event today, O'Malley will call for legislation to prohibit the practice and to set stiffer penalties for companies that engage in it, a campaign spokesman said.

"At a time when oil companies are enjoying record profits - that are counted in the tens of millions - we must do more to keep the price of gasoline affordable for Maryland families and small businesses," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Less affordable though gasoline may be, Averella cautioned consumers against "panic buying." But in some cases, that message is falling on deaf ears - an effect consumer behavior experts have studied.

"The underlying process going on here is really a variation on the scarcity effect," said Marian Friestad, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

When any product or service becomes scarce, people start behaving illogically, hoarding or stocking up or trying to get something immediately.

"There's still plenty of gas," she said, "but only so much gas at the current price."

One can only hoard as much as a car will hold, and mathematically the cost difference is not major. "But it's not a rational choice," she said.

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