Jim Bernard, who has owned the Chevron in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood since April 2001, has seen what happens to the gasoline business when something shocks the economy.
But neither the 9/11 attacks nor the Great Recession prepared him for the coronavirus pandemic: where earlier downturns cut his gasoline sales by 10% to 20%, today’s slump has dropped them by two-thirds.
“It’s cratered,” said Bernard, 53, on a recent morning. “I mean, look at the cars out on the road and do the math.”
Most of Bernard’s peers are probably doing that same math.
With much of the Seattle area in coronavirus-containment mode, people are driving less — the King County section of Interstate 5, for example, has around half its normal traffic — and that’s meant fewer fill-ups at the region’s gas stations.
At Fife-based Emanuel, which owns or operates 34 regional Shell, Arco and 76 stations, gasoline sales for late March were down roughly 60% over the same period last year, said Mike Leake, general manager.
Balbir Mann, who owns three independent stations in Sultan and Gold Bar, Snohomish County, and Coles Corner, Chelan County, reported a roughly two-thirds drop. “No one’s going to work,” said Mann, adding that business has been especially slow at his Coles Corner location near Leavenworth. Not only is the tourist town nearly tourist-less these days, but the ski resort at “Stevens Pass is closed so all the people working there don’t have jobs.”
To be sure, station owners are getting some relief from lower wholesale fuel prices, at least for now.
With the global economy rapidly cooling, crude oil prices have fallen by as much as two-thirds this year — for example, Alaska North Slope Crude, a source for West Coast refiners, was trading at around $25 last week, down from about $68 three months earlier — and prices for refined products like gasoline and diesel haven’t been far behind.
Motorists haven’t seen similar price drops. Since Jan. 1, the average retail price for all grades of gasoline in the Seattle area has fallen just 13%, to $2.86, for the week ending March 30, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Some of that price gap reflects gasoline’s refining, transportation and marketing costs, along with state and federal taxes — 67.8 cents. There is also a time lag: with slower sales, dealers may be selling gasoline today that they bought one or even two weeks ago, when wholesale prices were higher.
But a big factor is psychological: motorists tend to be less price sensitive when prices are falling. That’s why, historically, when wholesale prices fall, dealers have been slower to lower the retail price. The strategy can bring dealers a little extra revenue for each gallon — though, often, they’re just making back what they lost when prices rose.
These days, however, lower wholesale prices aren’t enough to make up for the massive loss in sales. Leake expects his profit to fall by 40% for March and even further in April as dealers across the region cut prices to protect their share of a dwindling gasoline market. Outside of Seattle, those price wars may have already started. Over the last month, gasoline prices in some outlying areas, such as Mount Vernon and Bellingham, have fallen at a faster rate than they have in the Seattle area, according to AAA’s gas tracker.
The one silver lining: sales remain surprisingly strong in the convenience stores where gas stations have long made most of their profit. These days, beer, cigarettes, candy and lottery tickets are helping dealers cover staff wages, leases and mortgages.
Some station owners chalk up better-than-expected sales inside their stores to the changing times.
Leake, for example, thinks his beer sales are stronger because “the restaurant happy hour people can’t go out anymore.” But he also suspects many of his customers are trying to avoid longer trips to the grocery store: he’s selling a lot more basics like milk, bread and, of course, toilet paper.
Bernard thinks he is seeing more locals who may be working from home or, too often, no longer working at all. Many are looking for a little chitchat on their daily walks, and seem pleased to find a neighborhood business that is still open. “For the first time in my life, I’m ‘essential,'” proclaims a sign in his parking lot.
Gasoline sales may be down, said Bernard, surveying his car-less pumping area. But “my hope is that this place is a little island of consistency in, you know, the broader ocean of ‘what the hell,’ right?”