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Motorists Get Fill of Gas Sites

Online pricing helps locate deals, but the audience may be limited

July 04, 2002|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Derrel Green retired 15 years ago from the big seat at the front of an RTD bus, but he still drives a route most days--only now the ride is a glistening silver Toyota Highlander and the stops are a series of gasoline stations near his West Covina home.

Green is on the lookout for pump prices that he can feed to a free Web site that helps consumers find the best deals on gasoline.

Green is a devotee of www .gasbuddy.com, but there are a few other such Web sites and thousands of other such volunteers. These are people willing to burn precious petrol in the monitoring of tens of thousands of gasoline prices nationwide so that fellow motorists can save a few dollars per fill-up.

"To me, it's a hobby," said Green, who routinely sees price differences of 20 cents or more per gallon among the retailers he surveys. "I kind of got hooked."

The Internet would seem to be the perfect forum for this kind of activity. Like a band of traveling coupon-clippers, these gas price "spotters" join together to find the best and worst fuel prices posted each day in communities across the country.

It is a service with noble intentions but with perhaps a limited audience. Because as much as Americans enjoy grousing about the price of gasoline, we are less likely to do something about it, gas experts say.

"I don't think consumers care as much as they say they do," said John Umbeck, an economics professor at Purdue University who has studied gasoline marketing. "In today's society, the price of time is just too important."

Still, there is no disputing that gasoline prices can swing by a dime or two per gallon in the space of only a few blocks. Such differences are what drive these gasoline price sites and irk the gas spotters, an enthusiastic bunch with a pronounced skepticism about major gasoline producers.

The oldest is the regional gas price survey conducted each week by the Utility Consumers' Action Network, a San Diego-based consumer advocacy group. The survey is so well followed that retailers have been known to wait until after the survey is posted each Tuesday (at www.ucan.org) before they raise prices.

UCAN uses its pricing survey to push its argument that gasoline is priced unfairly in the San Diego area and that lack of competition keeps prices higher there than in Los Angeles.

The group also hopes to jolt visitors to the gasoline section of its Web site into becoming more savvy shoppers, said Michael Shames, UCAN's executive director.

Brad Proctor was intrigued by the price disparities he saw among service stations as he delivered a free technology publication to retail outlets in the Midwest two years ago. Proctor was so intrigued that he and a few partners started a Web site called www.gasprice watch.com that he hopes will some day turn a profit by helping consumers shop for gasoline.

"The motivation is to help your friends and neighbors and people you will never meet make a better decision the next time they buy gasoline," Proctor said.

At www.gasbuddy.com, "there are a lot of people on the Web site who wouldn't classify themselves as people who are crazy about gas prices. But the thing is, it can really save a lot of money," said Jason Toews, co-founder of GasBuddy.com, which runs dozens of linked sites posting gas prices for specific areas, including www .losangelesgasprices.com and www .orangecountygasprices.com.

In Arcadia, for example, an Arco station could be found recently on www.losangelesgasprices.com's list of lowest prices ($1.51 per gallon), while a 76 station nearby made the list of highest prices ($1.69 per gallon). Buying 10 gallons at the cheaper station would save a motorist $1.80.

These sites have lured a loyal cadre of price watchers, attracted by the opportunity at some sites to win points and prizes for inputting prices, or drawn by a community of other motorists who hate to pay too much for gasoline.

At UCAN, the price spotters number less than a dozen, but they are regular volunteers with the consumer group, Shames said. Paid staff members spot check the prices for accuracy.

At www.gasbuddy.com, which is run out of the Minneapolis area, and www.gaspricewatch.com, based in Dayton, Ohio, tens of thousands have registered to post prices.

There's competition among spotters to find the cheapest or most expensive gas, Toews said.

Spotters get a bit defensive, he said, if a newcomer tries to update a price at a retailer that a regular spotter already has staked out.

"People like to feel that they are making a contribution to the Web site," Toews said. "They don't like people to post over their prices."

The Web sites receive the most visits--and spotters are most active--when gasoline prices are rising. Even so, the Internet is littered with the carcasses of gas sites that are no longer active. One, www.gaswars.com, lists prices entered more than a year ago.

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