Frugal Foo

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Paying the Price When Petrol Pumps are "Not in Use"

It really bugs me when I've waited for the low end of the petrol price cycle before I pull in to a petrol station to fill my car, which by then is running only on fumes and special words of encouragement from the driver, only to be confronted with "Not in Use" or similar signs on the nozzles.  On principle I will leave that petrol station and move on to another one risking running out of fuel on the way.  But I am sure there will be others who actually have better things to do rather than touring petrol stations, and will fill up with whatever fuel is available often at a higher price.  We have no way of knowing if there is really a fault with these pumps, but so often it seems to work in the favour of the petrol retailer and not the consumer.


Not normally a fan of current affairs TV programs such as A Current Affair (ACA), I couldn't help but stay tuned after the Channel 9 news last night when ACA introduced a piece about what they call a petrol scandal.  The report depicted several petrol stations where some or all of the cheapest petrol nozzles were posted with signs reading "Not in Use".  At some petrol stations,  it was the cheapest petrol, Unleaded 91 which was not in use, leaving only the more expensive premium unleaded options available to motorists.  In other cases, it was the cheapest non-ethanol blended product, Unleaded 95, which was not in use.  This means drivers with older cars that won't tolerate ethanol in the fuel, or modern sports cars which must use Premium Unleaded, are left only with the most expensive Unleaded 98 option.

The reporter then proceeded to defy the "Not in Use" signage, picking up the nozzle and drawing fuel into her cars fuel tank, demonstrating that the pumps were not out of order, as we might assume.  Responses from fuel retailers as to why this was the case are posted on the ACA website.   It should be pointed out that we don't know if the fuel the reporter merrily filled her car with was contaminated in some way, or the pump was calibrated incorrectly, or did not connect with the computer or any such fault which would have made the pump appear to work, but be quite rightly taken out of service.  But according to ACA, the Not in Use signs were "never on the most expensive petrol".

The conclusion to make from all this is that there is nothing to stop fuel retailers profiting at the expense of the unwary consumer, by closing off the low cost fuel options and leaving only expensive fuels on offer.  At the very least, the consumer is inconvenienced after having pulled up only to find they must either move on, or just fill up with the expensive fuel.

In previous posts I've explained my opinion on the lack of value for money of expensive premium unleaded and cheap but poor value ethanol blend fuels.  I always fill my car with regular unleaded 91 fuel.  I don't like being pressured to buy expensive premium fuel.

The response to ACA from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reads;
"Generally speaking, what retailers choose to sell and when they choose to sell it is a matter for them. This is also the case for petrol retailers. However, in making those choices, petrol retailers need to be honest and truthful in their representations as to the availability of supply."

I have to agree that I'd rather live in a world where a business is free to sell what ever (legal) products they choose at whatever prices they choose, and let competition weed out the bad players.  But a sign which simply reads "Not in Use" is misleading to the customer.  Perhaps it should read "Contaminated", or "Not for Sale", so consumers can judge whether or not to return to that business.  Any business which represents itself to be a "petrol" station which does not offer a basic type of petrol, like regular unleaded, should either not open or display clear signage out front before motorists take a detour off the main road and onto the premises where they will inevitably be disappointed.

The ACA report appeared to be limited to petrol stations in New South Whales.  My experience in Melbourne has been similar.  I'd be interested to see comments from anyone else in Australia or around the world for that matter, who has struck this similar problem, and wondered if the petrol / gas / service station manager is playing a little game with you that one way or another, you can't win.

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