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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Rage at Big Oil falls on little guy

By Tim Molloy
Associated Press

Los Angeles-area Chevron clerk Sam Shirazie sympathizes with customer complaints about soaring gasoline prices.

RIC FRANCIS | Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES Tempers are rising along with gas prices. Gas stations across the country report that drivers are taking out their gas rage against Big Oil by yelling at clerks and cashiers and sometimes driving off without paying.

"Everyone is suffering at the same time," said Sam Shirazie, a clerk at a Chevron station east of downtown Los Angeles. "If I could help to reduce that pain, I would."

No detailed statistics are kept on incidents of gas rage. But the National Association of Convenience Stores said anecdotal evidence indicates they have increased since prices began climbing in February.

Employees of Fleming Corp., which operates 14 gas stations in Kansas and Missouri, have heard everything from "just a mumble-grumble kind of thing to a cheap shot or blaming the clerk for world oil prices," owner Ed Roitz said.

Division manager Ron Davis hears complaints firsthand. "I don't want to repeat some of it," he said. "They'll talk about the blankety-blank oil companies."

The convenience stores association advises store owners to ensure that employees understand the costs associated with gas, and encourages them to explain to customers that in some cases they aren't making any profits. Retailers make about two-thirds of their profits from items inside the store, he said.

But, "don't dismiss customer complaints because we're in the customer service business," spokesman Jeff Lenard said.

Steve Grosse is trying humor to defuse tempers. At his Shell station in Manhattan Beach, Calif., he replaced the price of gas with the words "arm," "leg" and "first born."

In Los Angeles, Chevron station co-owner Anthony Sinai has started giving free sodas to customers who pump $20 worth of gas. He wants to avoid a repeat of an incident last year when an upset customer threw a cup of coffee at a female clerk.

Convenience stores that sell gas are responsible for three-quarters of all gas sales in the United States, Lenard said. But only 3 percent of those stations are owned by oil companies.

In Fond du Lac, Wis., the number of reported cases of customers driving off without paying for gas doubled to 100 in the first four months of this year compared to last year, police Maj. Kevin Lemke said.

"We've talked to a lot of the owners that are having problems and made some suggestions like maybe they need to start thinking about pre-pay," Lemke said.

Gasoline theft cost the industry an estimated $237 million in 2004. Some retailers have installed security cameras and advised workers to greet customers.

In Fort Payne, Ala., station owner Husain "Tony" Caddi, 54, was killed last August while grabbing the vehicle of a man trying to drive away without paying for $52 worth of gas. The driver, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison.