BOUNTIFUL, UT — During the first week in May, Doug Olson sold fuel at a loss.
The co-owner of Slim Olson’s gas stations in Bountiful and Woods Cross charged customers $4.25 for a gallon of diesel — despite purchasing it from the Chevron USA Inc. refinery in Salt Lake City for $4.27 a gallon.
Regular unleaded was trucked into the station from the refinery for $3.45 a gallon that week. Olson and his brother, the station’s co-owner, Keith, priced it at $3.49, for a 4-cent-per-gallon profit, if customers paid cash. But these days, most customers prefer paying with credit cards, and the Olsons lose 2 percent on transaction fees — roughly 7 cents a gallon — which resulted in a loss on regular gas.
"Do the math," Olson said. "Do you want to own a gas station?"
Record-high prices for a barrel of oil — which hit $123.53 Wednesday for a barrel of sweet crude to be delivered in June — are not just hurting drivers. Gas-station owners say they, too, are struggling financially.
At a congressional hearing Wednesday on rising gas prices, the owner of a petroleum distribution company in Texas told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that rising crude oil prices and stagnant gasoline demand are combining to push some small gas stations into insolvency.
Utah gas-station owners blame credit-card transaction fees, the nature of the gas market, rules specified by oil companies that gas stations have to adhere to if they want to sell their brands, and overall inflationary increases in the price of doing business.
International oil prices influence the price at the pump, because the amount of oil available is largely controlled by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which controls production of oil based on supply targets the organization tries to predict. After a barrel of oil is produced, it has to be refined before it is shipped to gas stations.
But local competition also influences how gas stations set prices. If a gas station owner charges more than the station across the street, the owner could lose customers to the competing station. That’s the dilemma at Slim Olson’s when they get a new shipment of gas that costs more than the previous shipment.
"Do we raise it and really lose the market?" Doug Olson said. "Or do we lose money and price it a little lower?"
At Slim Olson’s — as with most gas stations — profits come from popcorn, Cokes and hot dogs sold at the station’s convenience store. Slim Olson’s also has a carwash that is a local favorite. Customers who fill up at Slim Olson’s get a discount on a carwash.
But some customers are choosing to pay full price for the carwash and fill up at a cheaper station.
"Sometimes at Smith’s, you get a discount with groceries," said Ron Day, who was waiting for a car wash at Slim Olson’s on a recent Monday.
For gas stations in southern Davis County, profits were squeezed when Smith’s Food and Drug and Costco began selling gas about 15 cents cheaper than traditional stations, Olson said. Traditional stations struggle to compete with chain retailers, which have advantages of being able to sell a diversity of products and more easily absorb losses in gas sales.
Bill Douglass, chief executive officer of Douglass Distributing Co. in Sherman, Texas, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in prepared remarks that the average gas station makes 1.5 cents per gallon and sells 4,000 gallons of gas a day.
"This means we generate about $60 in profit per day at the pump," Douglass said. "On average, convenience stores/gas stations in 2007 saw an (annual) average pretax profit of only $23,335 per store, which includes both profits at the pump and inside the store."
Credit-card fees on average are 7.9 cents a gallon, said Douglass, former chairman of the National Association of Convenience Stores.
The cost of buying 9,000 gallons of wholesale gasoline has jumped 26 percent to $27,432 since 2006, according to the Oil Price Information Service.
Slim Olson’s is a 70-year-old family business. The company gets income from real estate, which right now is subsidizing the company’s gas losses.
"No one ever talks about quality anymore," Olson said.
A spokeswoman for Smith’s was unavailable for comment this past week. An executive in charge of gasoline for Costco Wholesale Corp., based in Issaquah, Wash., did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan foundation based in Santa Monica, Calif., said a number of factors contribute to a gas station’s success.
"It depends on their suppliers," she said. "It depends on how well run the station is. They’re not going broke, most of them, but it’s the oil companies that are making real money off $3.50 and $4 gas. The oil companies own some of the largest stations."
But major oil companies own only 3 percent of gas stations, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Other gas stations tend to be "at the complete mercy of their suppliers," Dugan said. "We don’t see service stations closing left and right, but it’s true they’re not the ones getting rich off of high gas prices."
The big push on gasoline prices these days is the price of oil itself, she said. "The oil companies and hedge funds are raking it in at our expense, at drivers’ expense and the whole economy’s expense."
Some gas stations may be increasing the price of gas when they see media reports that futures — oil purchased for a later delivery date — have increased, Dugan said. "Others are responding to their latest delivery. Refiners and the wholesalers who deliver to stations sometimes (send) two price quotes that are different in the same day from the same refiner."
Kevin Wilden has found his niche in a shop next to his Conoco station in Beaver in southern Utah.
He does light repairs such as oil changes and sells tires — although he admits he’s not pushy enough to make a good living on tire sales. Four gas stations sell tires in the southern Utah town, and Wilden found he could be competitive selling tires for tractors and other farm equipment.
"It’s been a tough market," he said. "I’ve been here for 30 years. It’s been a tough market for 30 years."
Dave Archibald, who leases Jim and Dave’s Sinclair in Tremonton in northern Utah, also has a light repair shop, which is the primary source of income for the station.
"You’d have to sell a lot of Twinkies to try to cover the rent, and in our community, it just doesn’t happen," Archibald said.
He has run the station since 1969 and believes these days of high gas prices are the toughest in his career. To keep other expenses low, Archibald works in the shop every day, and his wife runs the convenience store with the help of some part-time employees.
Archibald believes that if the oil prices would stabilize, he could get some relief by not having to constantly raise prices at the pump. In recent months, he has raised prices weekly. In more stable times, he only had to raise the price every three weeks or so.
Michelle Corrigan, owner of Shady Acres Silver Eagle in Green River, offers her customers a 3-cent-per-gallon discount on gas if customers pay in cash.
Customers are increasingly paying with cash to get the discount, and Corrigan is noticing more return customers in the east-central Utah town near the intersection of U.S. 6 and Interstate 70. "They’re actually starting to realize we’re trying to help them instead of sticking it to them again," she said.
If customers pay cash, they have to pay inside the store. And drawing them inside the store is also helping Shady Acres’ profits, because people are buying more goodies.
"We have a really big convenience store, because with the fuel, you’re basically making enough to pay for your lights and employees. We put a Blimpie Subs and Salads in there to bring people in more."
Shady Acres is located in the middle of town, and three years ago, Corrigan spent $10,000 on billboards on each end of town to advertise the place, about the same time as the former Amoco station decided to purchase gas from the Silver Eagle refinery in Woods Cross instead of converting the station to a Tesoro Corp. station when the Amoco brand was discontinued.
"We decided to do that so we could have even cheaper fuel," she said. "The fuel is the same, but when you go with a branded fuel, you’re obviously going to pay a little more. We decided, looking into the future, fuel seemed to be on the edge of skyrocketing, and we decided to go with nonbranding."
Not being affiliated with an oil company brand has freed Corrigan to advertise how she wants and offer the 3-cent-per-gallon discount to cash-paying customers, she said.
With no end in sight to the rising oil prices, gas-station owners are looking to such strategies to compete and survive. Doug Olson has a hard time contemplating closing shop. His grandfather, Slim Olson, began the company in 1937.
"Hope is what keeps you in it," he said.
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