Paul Dhillon owns Allen's Country Store. As operator of a single, non-chain convenience store, he's a rarity these days. There are only a couple of non-chain stores in the entire Evans area, where the big stations dominate every corner.
Competition in that environment is tough. With Kroger and Wal-Mart just down the street pumping gasoline a few cents below any price he posts, Dhillon will always see his gas prices undercut.
And even worse, he'll lose money on the deal.
It's a strange business. Why would anyone sell something for less than it costs? But we certainly understand it in the newspaper business; if we relied on the income from 50 cents per paper, or less for subscribers, we'd go broke. Our money comes from advertisers who are paying for the privilege of borrowing readers' attention span while our news and features hold them on the page.
We hold subscription costs low enough to keep as many readers as possible, and high enough to recoup as much of our costs as we can. It's a delicate balance.
Dhillon understands that balance. He knows that he can't win in a gas-price war, so he has to work harder to make up for it in service and with merchandise sales.
He dropped by the other day to talk about the volatile retail gasoline business. He worries that consumers see prices rise and blame the store selling it without understanding that the stores are hurting, too.
One set of wholesale invoices for gasoline shows just how much. On a recent delivery, Dhillon's lone store paid $2.72 per gallon for regular; that day he was selling it for $2.67 to compete with the Canadian-owned chain store across the street.
So he's already down 5 cents per gallon. If a customer pays with plastic, Dhillon loses another 6 cents per gallon in credit-card fees. And if the customer used a credit card and pays at the pump, he probably won't walk into the store to buy any of the merchandise on which Dhillon does make a profit.
Yet that customer, especially these days, may think Dhillon is making a bundle from those high gas prices. "That's what the public thinks," Dhillon says. "It's a very hot topic these days."
Indeed it is - especially to the private businessman who takes a beating on his books and in public opinion.
But Dhillon rightly points out that the independent owners - there are only a few left in Columbia County - live here and do business here, and are sensitive to the community. That includes sensitivity to the touchy topic of high gas prices. He wants the customers to know he doesn't like the high prices, either - and that they're not his fault.
It's understandable that some of those customers may see gas stations as legalized banditry when a tankful costs 50 bucks. But the guy running the gas station isn't the bandit.
Blame it on TV
My epiphany came while watching television coverage of Hurricane Ophelia drenching the coast of North and South Carolina.
I figured out why so many residents of New Orleans failed to evacuate as Katrina roared into town " and it's not just because the blame-everyone-else mayor failed to follow his own disaster plan and use city buses and school buses to ferry the careless and carless out of town.
Put yourself in their place: You're hunkered down in your house, watching the Weather Channel; they're telling you the big one is coming. It's bad, they say; you should evacuate.
Yet right there, on television, is a raincoat-clad TV reporter holding a microphone, standing out in the rain and wind. He seems to be perfectly OK, doesn't he? And he's outside. Surely, if he can survive standing in the weather, yelling into a microphone, you'll be just fine inside your house, won't you?
Stupid is as stupid does.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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