The call to remove fuel prices from forecourt pole signs has gathered momentum following the publication of driver research which showed that the majority of drivers could not recall how much they had just paid for their fuel. And that is despite retail fuel prices – diesel in particular – heading perilously close to £1.
Described as the most comprehensive price test ever to have taken place on UK petrol forecourts, the research, conducted on behalf of fuel management company Arval, involved the questioning of 600 drivers immediately after filling up. It showed that nearly 60% of drivers could not recall how much they had just paid for their fuel. Of the remaining 32%, almost two out of three gave the wrong price!
The worst driver culprits were found to be those that refuelled at motorway service stations, where 64% failed to recall the price of fuel, despite the fact that motorway service stations are traditionally the most expensive. The most price-conscious drivers were found to be those that refuelled at normally cheaper supermarket sites (48%).
The survey also revealed that men (57%) were marginally more price-conscious at the forecourt pump than women (61%) and that younger drivers were more aware of price.
The research also highlighted the fact that the highest average spend remains motorway service stations at £29.69, despite the high motorway prices. This compares to an average spend of £25.37 at cheaper supermarket forecourt sites.
Another revelation was the fact that UK drivers remain unwilling to save money by part-filling their tank at expensive forecourts with just enough fuel to get them to a cheaper site, the so-called ‘splash and dash option’ – only 22% of drivers have ever used this method of refuelling.
Arval believes the results also show that, despite rising pump prices, company drivers remain oblivious to the price of fuel and are not fully participating in cost-saving measures that could save them and their companies hundreds and thousands of pounds every year.
Mike Waters, head of Market Analysis at Arval, said: “This research proves that British drivers are still trapped in the mentality of putting ‘20 quid in the tank’ without regard for the actual price at the pump. At a time of rising fuel prices it’s like opening the driver’s side window and throwing money out.”
PRA director Ray Holloway is a firm believer that the industry should bring the roadside display of fuel prices to an end, and has run campaigns in the past to try and persuade the major oil companies to kick it off.
“Fuel price poles are very negative – you are telling customers exactly how much more expensive you are than the supermarkets. Traditional retailers should stop highlighting their deficiencies, and use their signage for something more positive. Why do price poles at supermarkets only display fuel prices? Why not display the price of a Mars Bar?”
There are actually no laws that require forecourts to display their prices on the roadside. It was a practice reputedly first begun by the Jet brand in the mid-60s to advertise its low fuel-price stance. ICI, which had a lot of ‘waste product’ it was determined to get rid of, followed soon after. The majors would use their pole signs to display promotions, such as stamp and glass offers. Then after the 1973 fuel crisis when fuel prices went up, price displays began to be the norm. Legislation in the form of The Retail Price Display Orders ensured that if oil companies were going to display prices, they had to display the full range – not just the cheapest.
While it’s a longshot unless the majors back it, there is growing support for the idea of removing prices from polesigns. Steve Jones, of Nuns’ Bridges Filling Station, Thetford, in Norfolk, said: “I can’t see the point of advertising to say we’re more expensive than Sainsbury’s. People think we are more expensive than Sainsbury’s anyway – even though quite often we’re not. History has taught us that supermarkets are cheaper but that’s not always the case.
“If the whole industry decided to do it, I would take my pole sign down. It would also make the countryside look a lot nicer. If just a portion of the industry takes the poles down, my concern is that volume would take a dive. But until someone tries it, we won’t know if that’s the case or not. I don’t think my customers know what they’ve spent. I don’t think a lot of my customers even know if they’ve paid for their fuel or not. We get so many instances when customers have spent so much time looking around the shop, that they forget to tell us they have fuel, or the staff forgets to charge them for it.”
Mark Bradshaw of Garagewatch believes it’s definitely time to take the prices down. “We need to take the onus off price and put it back on the facilities and services we provide. So if you’ve got a car wash or bakery, for example, that’s what we should be advertising.
“The reason my customers buy fuel at my site is not down to price. They know I’m slightly dearer and they put up with it because I’ve got the goods that they need.
Independents can’t take the prices down alone; I wish we could. It needs one of the majors to have the guts to do it and do it blatantly – say that we’re going to keep prices keen, but we sell a better product.
“I don’t think supermarkets would ever do it, but if the rest of us did, it wouldn’t matter. If the rest of us concentrate on service rather than price, supermarkets would lose out because they don’t offer a good service.”
Tony Barlow of Local Service Station in Shrewsbury has not waited around for the industry to make a decision, but made a bold move to remove his roadside prices more than a year ago – and is still here to tell the tale.
“I run two urban sites doing about a million litres a year, and if anything, volumes have risen since I removed polesign prices. Why should I advertise the fact that my prices are more expensive? I have to make a living, so I price so that I can earn a proper margin. It’s not insult pricing, although I can be anything up to 7p adrift of Asda. However my customers get a smile, good service and the convenience of a forecourt with a small grocery store.
“With all the closures many of them are just pleased to see a service station at all.”