Friday, January 19, 2007

Petrol price insanity

On the radio this morning, I heard perhaps one of the stupidest, most arbitrary, craziest rules ever enacted in a commercial setting.

A cashier of a petrol station rang the radio station for some competition, and the DJ asked him "What will I pay for petrol at your station today?". The cashier answered that he was forbidden to tell people the price of petrol over the phone.

Not the cost price, or the wholesale price, but the retail price.

It isn't like this was a commercially sensitive piece of information. It is public knowledge: the petrol station, like all the other petrol stations in the country, put their prices up on display in numerals three feet high. There is no conceivable reason for secrecy that withstands more than two seconds of thought.

Maybe, just maybe, if petrol stations were all independently owned, and prices were extremely competitive, and mobile phones didn't exist, a petrol station could delay -- not prevent -- their competitors from finding out what their price was by forcing them to send out "spies" onto the road rather than just make phone calls.

But none of those things are true: the vast bulk of stations are operated by the big oil companies (Shell, Mobile, Caltex and BP). Prices are set by the oil companies, and for the most part are the same all over the city. Like many businesses, petrol stations tend to clump in an area: many are literally across the road or next door to a competitor, so finding out the competition's price is a matter of looking out the window.

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