ACCORDING TO SOME OF MY FRIENDS I ought to have been a farmer. ‘You’re only happy when you’re moaning’ they complain, ‘doesn’t anything ever go right for you?’. Well, actually… very rarely. Let them try being a petrol retailer and see how bright and sunny they feel.

TAKE PETROL PRICES and margins for instance. In the past I’ve complained about the plonkers that work for some of the hypers, but right now the biggest idiots going must be those at Shell. Ok, they lost a lot of volume and now they’re trying to get it back. But how about some professional operation to win back your customers rather than ripping the backside out of the market? For people who presumably have a string of degrees and MBAs they sure can act stupid. The other week a local co-owned Shell site was at 73.9, 73.9 and 33.9 for LPG. The nearest hyper was at 74.9 and 74.9 (hardly wonderful, but at least showing willing) while the nearest LPG site is miles away. Just what is the sense in adopting that sort of pricing stance?

NEXT WE HAVE THAT WONDEFUL October present, the rise in the minimum wage to £4.50. From £3.60 to £4.50 in just over four years – a 25 per cent hike at a time when inflation has been at all time low. And on top of that, of course, we’ve had the imposition of four weeks paid holiday and the rise in employers’ national insurance (I’ll ignore extended maternity pay periods, paternity pay and flexible working time or I’ll get positively suicidal!). So don’t try telling me that it only affects the staff at the bottom end of the pay scale – the drift goes right through your pay structure as these days everyone expects to keep their differentials.

AND THE NET RESULT of this largesse a long queue of applicants every time you advertise a vacancy? Not on your nelly! Yesterday’s pay rise is today’s rubbish rate. And to some extent they’ve got a point – you need more money to cope with the increased prices in restaurants and shops that have been necessary to pay for the higher wages! Of course, now the rate is higher it means even part-time staff having to pay tax and NI, and, just in case there was still someone out there foolish enough to still be considering working part-time, we now have a whole raft of tax credit schemes that deduct £1 of benefit for £1 of pay. Even I find it hard to persuade someone why they should work for absolutely nothing. So we can say goodbye to the housewives and the guys with young families – which just leaves us with students or the ‘floating workers’ if we want to retain the flexibility of part time workers.

SO, A FUEL DUTY RISE IN OCTOBER was not that difficult to predict. In his budget speech Prudence said: “Owing to the recent high and volatile level of oil prices as a result of military conflict in Iraq, I have decided to defer the 1.28 pence a litre annual revaluation of fuel duties until six months from now – October 1 – and will legislate to this effect. And if the current international uncertainties and volatility remain I will not proceed with the change at all.” That’s pretty clear isn’t it?

I THOUGHT I’D HEARD it all from the ‘busy-bodies’ but I was wrong. As a result of a recent Health & Safety visit I’ve been judged a bad boy. My ‘crime’ was that, although I provided goggles and gloves to be used when topping up the car wash with shampoo and wax, I failed to display a notice that said ‘you must wear goggles and gloves when topping up the car wash’.

WITH ALL THE CRAP we have to put up with I am forever amazed at why we love the industry so much. Perhaps one of the compensations is the friendships that we make with other retailers. It is, therefore, with great sadness that I write about the untimely passing away of one of petrol retailing’s true characters, Howard Stavely. Whether due to the PRA, Total or, latterly, Texaco, Howard was known by many of you. Immaculately dressed with a razor sharp mind and possessing a dry, acerbic wit, Howard was the epitome of a gentleman. We will all miss him.