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Gas prices: Drivers use wrong vehicle to express frustration.

Byline: Serena Markstrom The Register-Guard

Rising gas prices are a sign of the times, and being the gas station employee responsible for switching the numbers to reflect the higher prices is not a choice job.

David Maggard, manager of the Campus Service Station on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene, is bemused by the response of some motorists to prices that have been rising daily.

While changing the station's price signs, he's seen drivers swing U-turns, then pull in wondering if they made it in time to save as little as a penny a gallon.

"To be honest with you, I thoroughly dread going out there (to change the sign)," Maggard said. "The public thinks we control the price, but I pay the same damn price as them."

So, fuel attendants must brace to take the heat for something they have no control over.

The razzing is mostly good-natured, gas pumpers said. But drivers' complaints can be inconvenient or annoying when it's time to replace smaller numbers with bigger ones. The public doesn't save all its comments for the sign changer - they complain at the pump, too, fuel attendants said.

According to AAA, the national average Friday was at an all-time high of $2.13 for a gallon of regular. Eugene-Springfield, at $2.19 a gallon, was still 19 cents shy of its record high. Still, any time gas crosses over into $2 territory, it seems to bring out the worst in some drivers.

Bertram Malle, associate psychology professor at the University of Oregon, said motorists gripe to the folks working the pumps even though they know they aren't the ones setting the prices.

"You blame the person who is 'psychologically' nearest to the frustration, the apparent, not the real, cause," Malle said.

Lynn Kahle, another UO professor who teaches social values and consumer behavior at the business school, echoed Malle's comments.

"The forces that actually control gasoline prices are relatively inaccessible," Kahle said. "People instead go after the nearby, but far less relevant, sources of price, such as the local retailers at gasoline stations. They want to lash out at someone, and the someone who is available is the local retailer."

Retailers said they are aware of the psychological difference between prices that start with "1" vs. "2," but when they get a fax, e-mail or phone call telling them the gas will cost them more, they are left with little choice.

"We were eating pennies (per gallon) trying to keep it at $1.99," said Casey Wilson, 31, manager of the Gateway Arco AM/PM. "You're never happy when the stick comes out."

The stick, the pole, whatever you call it - many gas station employees avoid being the one out there holding it.

Maggard, of the Campus Service Station, said he generally gets about three looks, comments or vulgar hand-gestures each time he changes the numbers.

The rest of the time, people share their negative thoughts with employees as they pump gas.

"It tends to wear on morale," he said.

Lori Cherry, head cashier at the Chevron Gateway Mightymart, is the one called upon when it's time to change the numbers. She said she notices bad looks from people driving by when there's bad news, but generally enjoys changing the numbers.

"It's kinda fun," Cherry said. "Especially when they (prices) are going down."

She said when the price of regular was $2.22 she almost ran out of 2s. Her fellow Chevron number switcher on Coburg Road was short a few and asked to borrow some. It was a moot issue because their numbers were different sizes.

To Cherry, the prices are out of hand, and when prices jumped 4 cents Wednesday, business slowed and she enjoyed a break.

It takes some skill to change the sign quickly, because you have to whack the number dead center. If you miss, it will be difficult to finesse it into the slot.

A few blocks up the road, at the gateway AM/PM, Matthew Tift, 47, is one of two employees who changes the sign. He joked about needing to wear a bulletproof vest, but admitted the only real danger is from falling numbers.

His fellow number switcher, Greg Pfaff, 57, said employees feign passing the buck.

"We tell the customer, `He's the one who put it up. He's the one who raised the prices,' ' Pfaff said. "The customer knows I'm joking. I haven't had honks or anyone yelling at me. I'd expect to get some shouts or verbal abuse. But, then again, I don't look at their faces as they drive by."
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 26, 2005
Words:761
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