Much of the media reacted predictably yesterday to the RAC’s latest claim – in a letter to Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho – that forecourts are ripping off motorists.
“Drivers hit by retailers making ‘unfairly high margins’ on fuel, minister warned” was a typical headline.
It’s a case that the industry has grown weary of hearing.
For too long lobby groups such as the RAC have dominated the public discourse when it comes to the cost of filling up, invariably focusing on headline prices and ignoring arguments from the Petrol Retailers Association and others that forecourts must make a profit to stay in business. This is especially the case when rising costs – utility bills, the living wage, not to mention a crime epidemic – are eating at the bottom line.
And, of course, no journalist ever made enemies by choosing to champion the consumer.
It is becoming a trope in which profiteering petrol retailers are ranked with rogue landlords, dodgy builders, and fat cat bankers – all scamming the poor downtrodden public for a quick buck.
It is time to try to change the narrative.
Every retailer that has a competitor within 10 miles knows that the sector is ruthlessly competitive. Any forecourt that tries to eke a higher margin by hiking pump prices risks customers voting with their steering wheels and driving elsewhere.
But arguing the economic laws of Adam Smith is perhaps unlikely to win over sceptics.
Instead, forecourts must take every opportunity to stress their community contribution, from the jobs they create to the pint of milk they sell to the shift worker at 5am, and perhaps most importantly the role they play in keeping Britain’s drivers moving around the clock. Kill forecourts and you make life more difficult for motorists, destroy livelihoods, and take a hatchet to the country’s economy.
Transforming the way the industry is viewed will not be easy. But by shouting more about the essential consumer service they provide – whether sending stories to local newspapers about what they are doing or writing to their local MP – retailers have a chance, if not to be loved, at least to be appreciated.
And rather than fall in with the RAC’s dog-whistle statements, the Energy Secretary could help by making the case for a thriving forecourt sector from the government benches.