Battle Stations

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff   |  9/04/2005

It now causes untold pain, that little yellow light, the one on her dashboard, registering that her Dodge is really thirsty.

She can't afford the high-priced fuel, she said, and so she now often begs friends for rides, or walks.

But when Vivian Campbell has no choice and must fill up her Caravan's tank rather, add enough gas to get by for some time the 52-year-old Cambridge resident drives through her own city, passing maybe a half-dozen other stations, until she reaches a grimy stretch of Somerville, where four lines of cars idle until reaching a guy holding a wad of cash in one hand and a pungent nozzle in the other.

"This is the only place I'll come for gas," Campbell said.

Aris Auto and other independently owned stations are struggling to offer the best deals in Greater Boston. With prices for gas in the metro area surging this Labor Day weekend well beyond $3 a gallon -- in some cases rising by the hour -- they are fighting for every drop of business, tracking one another's prices and lining up customers who drive in from miles away.

Aris's eight pumps on Somerville Avenue, which at the end of August sold regular gas at $2.47 a gallon, offered the cheapest gas in the area, according to, and only 2 cents more than the best retail price for regular unleaded in the nation, according to the latest Lundberg Survey of 7,000 gas stations.

Line 'em up
At Aris, where on the same day last month its regular unleaded sold for 40 cents below a Shell station less than 3 miles away, a constant stream of rusted jalopies and shiny new sedans lined up.

They came from around the corner or miles away, with drivers from suburbs such as Lexington, Salem, and Waltham saying it was worth passing other stations, fighting traffic, and driving the distance to gas up at the inconveniently located station.

Twice a week, Bob Davis drives the roughly 10 miles from his home in Lexington to fill up at Aris, he said. An antiques dealer who drives around a lot, the 70-year-old has discovered a downside to his powerful new Ford pickup -- it gets about 11 miles a gallon and now costs more than $80 to top off, he said.

"I look around at gas prices all the time, but this is the cheapest I can find," Davis said. "It's worth my time coming here."

Cheap, of course, is relative.
A local cabdriver for the past decade, Paul Griffin often visits Aris twice a day. But with the cost of fuel increasingly cutting his profits -- an average day now nets him only about $75 -- the 50-year-old from Chelmsford has trouble looking at the old pump's gauges.

Like many others, he resists filling up. It's easier to pay $25 for gas twice in a day than it is to fork over $50 at once. "You get by how you can," Griffin said.

A week before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and sent gas prices soaring further, Longin Holejko's eyes bulged as he watched the pump reach $35 to fill his new Buick LaCrosse. The 70-year-old retired chemist, who drove to Aris from Arlington, couldn't believe he's getting only about 13 miles a gallon. The dealership, he said, told him the car would be more fuel efficient.

Then he handed over the cash.

"I'm not happy," he griped. "It may be cheaper here, but the cost is still outrageous."

`He's just crazy'
How does Aris do it, particularly when other stations in the area charge significantly more -- some on the same day last month by as much as 40 cents?

"He's out of his mind -- he's just crazy," said Jack Orchanian, 52, who for the past 30 years has owned the small station less than a mile and half north of Aris on Massachusetts Avenue. On a recent day at Jack's, also known for low prices, a sign advertising its regular unleaded read 8 cents more than at Aris.

"He's not even covering his overhead," Orchanian said of Aris's owner. "Well, if he wants to give his gas away, that's up to him."

To cover costs and make it worth his time to sell gas, Orchanian tries to keep his margin at 10 cents above what he pays his suppliers. Which means if he sells 2,000 gallons a day, average for his station now, he takes in about $200. Money from a repair business and sales of other merchandise must carry the rest of his payroll, insurance, utilities, and other expenses.

On the same day Aris was selling gas for $2.47, Orchanian said he paid his suppliers $2.47 a gallon to fill his station, just 2 cents more than Aris had paid its distributor. "I just don't understand how he's doing it," he said.

A few blocks away, another independently owned competitor called Gas with a Smile was selling self-serve regular for 11 cents a gallon more than Aris.

The station manager, Chris Poutakidis, scratched his head when asked why there was such a difference in price, particularly after noting how his station had already cut its usual margin from an average of 25 cents a gallon to 18 cents. "It doesn't make sense," he said. "How does he stay in business?"

Reached on a cellphone while steering a boat in the waters off his native Greece, George Varelis, who bought Aris from a fellow Greek in 1981, explained how he undercuts the competition and still pays attendants to pump petrol for all his customers: He has already paid off the station's mortgage, so his overhead isn't too much of a burden. He also charges 5 cents a gallon extra for purchases with credit cards, which means most sales are in cash and he doesn't lose as much to Visa or American Express. Another reason is that he works in volume, hoping that low prices attract more customers, many of whom may also bring in their cars for repairs.

Despite the station's constant traffic, receipts have shrunk in recent months, Varelis and his managers say. There are plenty of drivers at the pumps, but more have either cut back on how much they'll spend on each visit or found alternatives to using their cars, they say. Still, Aris now has on average 600 customers buy about 10,000 gallons a day, about five times more customers than Jack's Gas.

"It's not by accident that we have the lowest prices around," Varelis said. "We drive around every day and look at all the prices. We always try to be the cheapest."

On the day last month when Aris hawked its full-serve regular at $2.47 a gallon --like stations throughout the region, the price has since soared much further -- a receipt from the station's distributor showed Varelis paid only 2 cents less to have his tanks filled.

"This is not the time to make money," he said.

"It's hard enough for a lot of people, and more than anything, I want to keep my customers. So I feel obligated, and sometimes I lose a little."

Selling below the price paid for gas is illegal in Massachusetts and about a dozen other states. Varelis's losses come from having too small a margin to cover all costs, he said, let alone make a profit.

Over the last week, Aris saw its prices rise from $2.47 to $2.69 to $2.89 to $3.09 to $3.25, as of Thursday.

"The prices are going up so quickly, we have to raise them every day now," said Herbie Burnett, one of the managers at Aris. "Some stations I've seen haven't changed their price on their signs, but they've gone up at the pumps, which is illegal. We're just trying to survive right now."
The corporate difference

Though some nearby stations have competed with Aris by keeping their price within a few cents, others seem to have opted out of the price wars, particularly those run by the corporate behemoths that occupy such prime real estate that they don't fret about being low-balled.

Less than 3 miles away from Aris, along Magazine Beach on Memorial Drive, the Shell station there advertised its full-serve regular for $2.87 a gallon and its top grade "V-Power" for $3.02.
On the same day late last month, when these were relatively expensive prices, another Shell station, just off Interstate 93 in South Bay, was selling self-serve regular for $2.81 a gallon, $3.05 for V-Power.

"All I can say about our prices is that they're set by the corporate office," said Philip Kwan, a mechanic running the Magazine Beach Shell.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

1:HOW TO FIND THE CHEAPEST GASThere are several sources for checking out the best gas prices in your neighborhood. Here are three popular online sites: Click on the "Fuel Price Finder" line. Choose stations within 3-, 5-, or 10-mile distances. Breakdowns by brand and grade; encourages drivers to post information on where to find cheap gas. Includes stations throughout the US, as well as Canada. Also asks for driver input.

1. Slow down. Dropping speed decreases the aerodynamic drag. Cutting down to 62 miles per hour from 75, for example, can reduce gas use by about 15 percent.

2. Don't be abrupt with the accelerator or the brakes . Using slow, steady acceleration and braking can increase fuel economy by as much as 20%.

3. Keep tires pumped. Maintain the tire air pressure recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. A single tire under inflated by two pounds per square inch can increase fuel consumption by 1 percent.

4. Lose the cool. The air conditioner puts an extra load on the engine, burning 20 percent more gas. The defrost on most vehicles does the same.

5. Close the windows. Especially at highway speeds, open windows increase drag and decrease fuel economy by as much as 10 percent.

6. Car care. Proper service and maintenance avoids poor fuel economy related to dirty air filters, old spark plugs, or low fluid levels.

7. Cruise. Use of cruise control, keeping speed steady over long distances, saves gas.

8. Travel light. Heavy loads hog gas. Pack lightly for long trips.

9. Idle losers. Shut off the car when you know you'll be stopped for more than a minute. Restarting the car uses less fuel than letting it idle for that amount of time.

10. Buy a fuel-efficient vehicle. Think small, and shift for yourself. Manual transmission usually offers better fuel economy.

Asked whether some stations charge more for gas because they sell better petrol, John Paul, a spokesman for AAA Southern New England, said much of the gas in the area comes off the same tankers that dock in East Boston. The only significant difference is that some companies have trucks with special tanks, which mix the gas with additives that may reduce engine knock.

"Essentially, gasoline is gasoline, and it will perform similarly in the same cars," Paul said. "So, for most people, I recommend they try to buy the cheapest gas they can find."