Break Time stations cut gasoline prices

Thursday, September 20, 2001

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- MFA Oil Co.'s Break Time convenience stores, among the first to boost gasoline prices during the initial panicky hours after last week's terrorist attacks, were rewarded with customer outrage.

Now the Columbia-based company is leading in lowering prices at the pump. By Wednesday evening, Break Time's charge for unleaded regular gasoline undercut pre-attack prices by more than a nickel.

The latest prices are 30 cents below peak prices posted by Break Time's 80 Missouri stores soon after last week's attacks in New York and Washington. At that time, prices jumped 23 cents a gallon for unleaded, to $1.79.

There was panic-driven price-raising and fuel-buying nationally, with some Missouri stations reportedly asking $5 to $10 a gallon and customers forming long lines to buy gas.

Attorney General Jay Nixon announced Wednesday that he planned to take legal action against gas stations that raised prices to more than $2.49 a gallon.

Most retail prices returned to the range of $1.55 a gallon by the day after the attacks, including those at Break Time. But for those who suddenly raised prices, the public relations damage was done. Because Break Time has multiple stations in several communities, the scorn seemed compounded.

Radio ads

Last week, a top executive of Break Time voiced radio ads to explain why prices went up, calling the decision a response to notification about wholesale price increases. Still customers grumbled.

In interviews, Break Time's senior vice president, Jerry Taylor, apologized profusely for what he called an "irresponsible" decision to maintain MFA's 10-cents-per-gallon profit margin and brace for more wholesale cost increases.

Many former Break Time customers saw greed as the motivation.

Taylor said the company shouldn't have raised prices during a national crisis, "even if it meant we would have to take a loss."

By Tuesday evening, a week after the attacks, Break Time's price in Columbia for unleaded regular had dropped to $1.49 a gallon, while neighboring competitors were still selling in the $1.52 range.

Declining receipts

And by Wednesday afternoon, many competitors had matched Break Time's price.

Officials of MFA Oil-Break Time did not return repeated calls Wednesday from The Associated Press seeking comment.

But sources told the AP that receipts had notably declined at many Break Time stores.

At one usually busy store in Columbia, sources said, sales totaled $120 for a three-hour period after midnight Saturday, when beer sales to college students alone can account for many times that take.

Some of the decline may be attributed to people simply staying home coupled with the cancellation of Saturday's University of Missouri football game, but the sources noted that Break Time's competitors appeared to do brisk business.

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