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Pump and Run

While gas prices spiral, a stretch of Brook Road offers a lesson in consumer psychology.



William Smith of Mechanicsville thought he knew why he stopped at the Wawa gas station at Brook Road and Wilmer Avenue in Henrico County's North Side two Fridays ago.

“I live in Mechanicsville and it's $1.99 a gallon there,” he says, while the soothing gurgle of $1.89 gas flows into his sedan. “It's a lot cheaper here.”

So cheap that the dozen or so pumps sheltered under the Wawa's bright red and yellow canopy are full. Drivers are lined up waiting their turns.

The mighty King Nimrod would be proud of Smith and his fellow bargain seekers. But the more modern use of the biblical hunter's name plays on the minds of gas customers just 50 yards away across Brook Road at the Chevron station — where gas is $1.79.

“Wow — I didn't notice that,” a disappointed Smith says when made aware of the Chevron prices visible over his shoulder.

Yet earlier that week, when the Wawa's prices were running higher than $2.10, and when the recently reopened Chevron already was selling for $1.79, the lines at Wawa were two cars deep, while customers at Chevron literally had the luxury of picking their pump.

What should have been a good old-fashioned gas war instead had the look of a bizarre psychology experiment. Why would anyone pay more for gas at the well-marketed, modern Wawa station when they could save $5 on a 15-gallon tank?

“That really is quite strange,” says Dr. Thomas Maronick, a professor of marketing at Towson University in Baltimore, and a former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Maronick speculates that any number of factors might lead otherwise savvy gas customers to shoot themselves in the wallet.

“Oftentimes it's just habit more than anything else,” he says.

Considered the category killers of the gas station and convenience store business, both Wawa and Sheetz have a well-honed strategy of using gasoline as a loss leader to pull customers away from smaller competitors. Over time, consumers become so accustomed to Wawa and Sheetz having the lowest gas prices that they may stop looking elsewhere.

“It may be where the station is located,” Maronick muses — “it's a little bit cheaper over there, but this side of the street it's easier to turn right than left against traffic.”

Another surprising factor may be that Chevron's deal was just too good, Maronick says, giving a marketing textbook example: “One of the mouthwash companies came up with a brand of mouthwash a few years back and it was significantly cheaper, but they couldn't sell the stuff.”

After raising the price closer to competitor brands, “the brand took off. If it was 4 or 5 cents cheaper, OK,” he says. “But if it's 15 cents cheaper, there must be something wrong with that stuff.”

Maronick also says it may literally be worth the $5 difference in tank of gas for customers simply to know that Wawa — known for its subs, coffee, premium beer selection and breakfast biscuits as much as its gas — has what they need even if they're not going to buy anything on that particular visit.

“I don't want to buy that [soda] right now, but if I wanted to, I could have,” he says, interpreting the mind-set of a customer who skips the Chevron's discounts for the potential for Wawa's comfort food. “That sounds ridiculous, but it's certainly a factor.”

Just ask Vance Joyner, who dropped $30.06 in his tank at Wawa and bought nothing else — no newspaper, no coffee, no bagel — but took joy in knowing he could have. “I can get pretty much everything I want here,” he says.

“Over there, it's just not convenient,” Joyner says, gesturing to the identical pumps across Brook Road, where there is no line of cars, but also no potential to buy a vanilla-scented car freshener. “It's probably worth 10 cents a gallon to come here. Or, I guess you could just say this is habit.”

A week later, prices at the two stations were within 5 cents, and had dropped into the $1.65 range. Customers, apparently confirming Maronick's Second Theory of Consumer Stupidity, were patronizing both sides of the road equally. S

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