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Friday, September 30, 2005

Tipping Point - Gasoline

We had a strange occurrence here last week. On Friday, September 23, the day that Hurricane Rita hit land in Texas, a rumor hit Charleston, WV. The story was that gas prices had hit $5.00 in the nearby suburb of Teays Valley. The price hike was spreading and was soon to reach Charleston. Everyone was told that they'd better run out and fill up before the prices rose by more than $2.00 per gallon to the unfathomable $5.00 point.

At 4:30 I made a beeline for my local Chevron station. The pumps were turned off, covered with bags. A sign on each pump showed, "Out of gas." The next station I visited still had gas, but had lines 4 and 5 cars deep at each island. Word was that they, too, were about to run out of gas.

Turns out that it was all a rumor, a hoax. There was no gas station in Teays Valley charging $5.00 per gallon. Moreover, the prices never eclipsed $3.00 per gallon last week or this week. (Which is not to say that prices aren't too darn high!)

As a marketing professional and an armchair sociologist, the whole episode made me wonder. Who started the rumor? How did it spread so widely? What path did it take?With Hurricane Rita hitting--and the memories of Katrina fresh in everyone's mind--we were all prepared for more crazy stuff to happen. The environment was ripe for a rumor to reach its tipping point. Still, it is fascinating that it happened ... that I believed it too ... that it all began with one person, really, who caused all of this.

Here's a report from the Charleston Gazette

Rumors fuel gas-price scare in W.Va.
Panicked by Hurricane Rita, drivers make run on filling stations
By Joe Morris
Business Editor

Hurricane Rita was a good 1,200 miles away and gas prices were holding steady, but that didn’t stop drivers across the state from stampeding filling stations Friday, pumping more than a dozen dry.

“People are going crazy for no reason,” said Jan Vineyard, executive director of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association. “Our suppliers have us allocated, and if everyone would do everything in their usual manner, we’ll all be OK.”

But things were far from their usual manner. Cars lined up by the dozens at pumps as the day wore on and unfounded rumors of $5 a gallon radiated.

Charleston Police Lt. Jim Sands said he had to break up an altercation between two drivers over who was first in line at the Go-Mart on West Washington Street. “Prices haven’t spiked,” Sands said. “I don’t know where this is coming from.”

At least two gas stations in the Charleston area, the 50th Street 7-Eleven and Speedway on Green Road at Southridge Centre, did run out of gas, as did “quite a few” others throughout West Virginia, Vineyard said. She did not know the exact number, but estimated that it was more than 10 or 12.

“We expect these to increase, unless people calm down,” she said. “You would think we would be a caring-enough nation to be conservative at a time like this.”

In fact, despite all the panic-buying, prices never spiked. The biggest increases over the course of the day were no more than a dime, and at least one station in Parkersburg lowered its price.

1 Comments:

Blogger Marc Snyder said...

Some very similar happened here in Quebec a couple of weeks ago. A gas station attendant in Quebec City accidently raised the price of gas in his computer. It automatically went up on his sign outside.

Some guy called a radio station and told them about this huge hike. Our local CNN went live with it. Soon gas stations in Montreal (about 150 miles away) were getting swamped with people lining up.

All because of one computer error.

Heh.

MS

7:17 AM

 

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