Kempner: Oh, that $2.99 a gallon? That was a mistake


In the landscape of confusing jacked-up gas prices across metro Atlanta, a stretch along Tara Boulevard near I-75 stood out like a high-priced Bermuda Triangle for customers’ dollars.

Several Jonesboro area stations were reported charging $3 (OK, $2.99 and nine tenths) for a gallon of regular.

But the oddest thing is what happened after I stopped in a couple of the stations to ask about the high prices. The friendly folks at the counters told me I’d have to call back to talk to managers. When I did hours later, both stores told me the $2.99 had been a mistake. Helpers, they said, had put in the wrong prices, which should have been lower, I was told.

Oops. Coincidence, right?

“Personally, I didn’t notice it,” said Happy Patel, the manager at a Citgo, at the corner of Tara Boulevard and North Carter Drive, that labels itself the “Good Neighborhood Grocery Store.

“The moment you left, my colleague told me. I said, ‘Change the price.’” (Which is pretty much what I was told by a guy at a second Citgo at Tara Boulevard near Mt. Zion Road, though he declined to share his name.)

I asked Patel how he sets prices. He talked about trying to be consistent with nearby stations. “I just got this job two months back. I have to follow this area.”

The governor is talking tough about cracking down on price gougers in the wake of the busted interstate pipeline that scrambled gas supplies in several states, but apparently none more than in Georgia. (The leaky pipeline also showed what a teetering network we rely on for the mother’s milk of our economy’s internal-combustion engines.) A workaround pipe is in place, but piped fuel apparently only flows at five miles per hour, according to the Energy Information Administration. The market could remain goofy for days to come.

Georgia’s hodgepodge of prices highlight how opaque the system is. How much of the price increase is tied to retailers or wholesalers getting hit with higher costs and how much is just over-the-top profiteering or that “g” word (gouging)?

The free market forces of supply and demand are a good thing. It’s up to us to choose whether to pay or find a competitor. (You can compare reported prices at GasBuddy.com.)

An odd product

Gasoline is an oddity. No other consumer product has its prices posted so prominently along roads. And prices change rapidly even in normal times. So we’re accustomed to volatility and odd differences among stations.

Within about a mile of the Jonesboro stations that charged $2.99 was a Racetrac offering regular for 60 cents less per gallon. (Which means about $7 less for a typical 12-gallon tank.) Of course, even that $2.39 was well above what metro Atlanta prices had been a week ago.

Martika Whitaker pulled in after skipping the higher prices up the road. “Two ninety-nine, I’m not going to pay that,” she told me.

“I don’t know what the deal is with ($2.99). Are they paying more to get their gas?” she asked me.

Yes, I’m told.

The average wholesale price for Gulf Coast gas rose about five cents a gallon between Monday and the price a week earlier, according to Gregg Laskoski, a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.

But average retail prices in Georgia rose a lot more.

Still, Laskoski told me he doesn’t see evidence of price gouging or anything out of the ordinary. But he also said in a private marketplace, “We don’t have the transparency to make an informed decision on that.”

The market for gasoline keeps changing.

Wholesale prices paid by QuikTrip increased 25 to 30 cents since the pipeline bust began, spokesman Chuck Barton told me Tuesday. Suppliers “will offer at a price they think they can sell it for.”

On the other hand, he said, at QT “we’re going to keep our prices as low as we possibly can based on the prices we are paying for it.”

One-off deals

Some retailers reportedly made special arrangements to get gas during the crunch, which could also boost their cost and pump prices.

Sometimes other station owners say they set prices high to slow down purchasing to make sure there’s gas for people who really need it. So is the shellacking more acceptable if its aimed at the most desperate drivers?

Of course, gas prices that seem outrageous this week would have felt like a bargain a couple years ago when a gallon of regular bounced between $3 and $4.

And some people just don’t sweat it that much.

“I need gas,” a woman explained to me as she pulled her Ford in for the $2.99 stuff in Jonesboro this week. She didn’t fill up all the way.

A guy in a Mercedes did, though. He told me he was running low and went to the first station he saw with premium. He was surprised when I told him he had just paid $3.59 a gallon.

Another guy in a Mercedes told me he couldn’t stomach that. He went to the Racetrac and filled up with regular for $2.39.

“I kept on trucking,” he told me.

That’s the greatest power consumers have.

Assuming they have enough gas to do it.



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