Regular gas prices across Mercer County are $1.10 more per gallon than one year ago, according to AAA, and the current cost per gallon is still amongst the highest statewide. Though we’ve seen prices dip a bit this month (prices were seen as low as $4.07 in Lawrence and W. Windsor) they continue to fluctuate. The cost of gasoline is having a rippling effect on our economy and is one of the main contributors to our current 4-decade high inflation.
THE REAL COST OF GAS
“It’ll go down a little, then up the next day. I recently had it go up 10 cents one day, then up again 20 cents the next, then 2 days later it went down 3 cents,” recalls Willie Rosso, owner of Princeton Sunoco on Nassau Street. “I don’t control the price. It’s the oil companies and they’re making the biggest profits ever.”
For individual station owners like Rosso, the fuel price is determined long before it arrives to fill their station tanks. There is zone pricing, higher in town and lower on highways, and the cost per gallon charged to customers is then based on what it cost at delivery. Sometimes only 10 cents per gallon goes into station owners’ pockets. At the end of July, Exxon Mobile, Chevron and Shell all shattered their profit records while the high cost of fuel in America was raising delivery costs and changing the way people live and do business.
“I have a lot of people I don’t even see any more like Door Dash drivers, they’d come by every single day, Uber drivers, landscapers,” shares Zakaria Bentaleb, who owns Noor & Son’s Gas Station with his father and sister, the Exxon station at Rt. 206 and Cherry Valley Road. “It’s not worth it for them to fill up $700 worth of gas, for example, for a landscaper that doesn’t get $700 for the day. Everybody is operating on smaller amounts – if he had 6 motors, he’s operating out of 2. If he had 7 trucks, he’s operating out of 3.”
CUSTOMER REACTIONS TO HIGH PRICES
Rather than filling up as most customers had in the past, Rosso and Bentaleb say they are often seeing people put just $20 in their tanks, some are even just coming over and pumping $5 to get by. Though the roadways are busy, by gas station standards people appear to not be driving as much, whether by choice or situation. Princeton Perspectives recently questioned people about the ways inflation is affecting them and several shared that the current state of inflation is causing them to think more when they fill up their tanks.
“I put a financial limit when I fill up at the gas station. Otherwise, it feels out of control, stressful, and anxiety-inducing. I guess it’s my way of exerting control,” one person shared anonymously. “How much do I feel I can actually spend on gas this week? I try to limit my trips where I can. Do I really need to go to the store? Can I work from home today?”
This is a mindset we also heard from others.
“I fill up only every 2 weeks when I get paid. So, I have to budget where I go. Long trips or coming and going are not an option now. It is like $80 to fill up when I used to pay $40,” explains Princeton local, Ana P. “It is also very important to note that these prices don’t help with summer activities like taking my kids to the beach etc., because you know it will be very costly for outings like that.”
Nearly 30% of the 85 people we surveyed shared they are conscious about gas prices, but they aren’t yet limiting themselves. Grace Z. explained that her family is financially comfortable but having an understanding of finances, as a Certified Public Accountant, she thinks about the cost of gas and how to cut back so that her family can use their money towards other things.
“We wanted to go to a NY state sculpture park, Storm King Art Center, but it will take two hours to drive there. Then we chose our local Grounds for Sculpture instead,” she shared. “And I try to combine all the errands and shopping into one big trip to save time and gas. We still do sightseeing and driving on country roads, but we want to make sure the trip is really worth the gas price.”
Rosso recalls what it was like back in the 1980s and 90s, when cars were less fuel efficient, and the economy was good. Pumping 3,500-4,000 gallons a day was common. He notes it was about 20 years ago that things started to shift and today, with more fuel-efficient cars, several people switching to EV and avoiding gas all together and people driving less due to the current state of work and the economy, he says business is down about 20% over the past 4-5 months. Bentaleb says he’s suffered a nearly 35% loss.
Some concede the war against Ukraine is to blame for the shift in gas prices, while others say it was a natural expectation as the costs of everything has gone up. Peoples’ needs for gasoline are adjusting as some are trying to create a more carbon neutral footprint and rely less on fuel
“As a family we’ve been focused on living more and more sustainably for quite some time, so we were already walking and biking when possible and driving an electric car,” one local shared when taking our survey. “Higher gas prices have caused us to walk and bike even more and drive our electric vehicle whenever possible, although there are still times when we need to use the old, gas-guzzling ‘people mover’.”
Ana P. noted that she’s now chosen closer locations to buy food and groceries so that she can walk or bike yet another local explained alternatives are not an option, as she simply doesn’t live close enough to work or shops to avoid driving there.
THE TOLL ON STATION OWNERS
While it does appear that everyone but the oil companies are making concessions, our local gas station owners are thankful that there is more to their businesses than just pumping gas – and that is what’s keeping them afloat.
“I would be 6 floors under if it was just a gas station operating itself and I’d be 5 floors under if the customer service wasn’t the same. The store is helping me out and my customer service is helping me out,” explains Bentaleb, whose station offers a convenience store as well as gas. “Our gas station is completely different. You come here, we offer you water (for free, of course) and we talk to our customers. We don’t just fill up and go – because it’s a family business. We treat you the right way because it’s our business.”
If it’s just gas you want, Rosso admits local station owners will never be able to compete with the prices you can find at places like Wawa or Costco. But, he shares, as long as locals continue to trust him with their car care needs, his shop is what keeps his doors open.
Providing what your customers need and making them feel welcome is essential for business. And customer loyalty is a big part of what keeps these local businesses open. If you don’t have a regular spot and simply need to find the best option around, there are apps and websites such as GasBuddy which allow you to see local gas prices. If you put in “08540” you’ll immediately be presented with a list of nine gas stations in our area – around Princeton, in Skillman and Kendall Park. You can also click “view map” to see where these locations are in proximity to you.
Until long term relief comes at the pump, remember this…though gas prices hit an all-time high this summer, we thought we’d seen what would be the highest ever back in July 2008, when gas prices averaged $4.10. We never thought we’d welcome back prices like that!
Lisa Jacknow spent years working in national and local news in and around New York City before moving to Princeton. Working as both a TV producer and news reporter, Lisa came to this area to focus on the local news of Mercer County at WZBN-TV. In recent years, she got immersed in the Princeton community by serving leadership roles at local schools in addition to volunteering for other local non-profits. In her free time, Lisa loves to spend time with her family, play tennis, sing and play the piano. A graduate of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Lisa was raised just north of Boston, Massachusetts but has lived in the tri-state area since college. She is excited to be Editor and head writer for Princeton Perspectives!