Over a fresh cup of black coffee we talked about her time at the Shell station. She said her regular customers weren’t too happy about the rising gas prices, but no one had so far blamed her. She asked who I was. I explained that I worked for Shell out of Houston, and liked to drop into local Shell stations to get a sense of how things were going. I didn’t play the president card; that’s a good way to close down an otherwise open conversation. She said she didn’t know much about Shell, since her station was owned by a small independent distribution company (known as a “jobber” in the industry). But she thought the tanker delivery people were always nice and prompt, regardless of the weather or time of day.
Strolling outside, I found a few customers filling up. They too seemed friendly and open. Interestingly, no one asked me who I was. One person told me he stopped here because of his Shell MasterCard and the discount he got. Another person said he and his family lived a few blocks away; he liked the people who worked at the station and confirmed that it was always clean, unlike some other stations around town.
Then I was off to the next station, a Shell store near the interstate. What a disaster! There was so much gravel and dirt covering the forecourt concrete that it must not have been cleaned in many months. The store manager was inside behind the counter, surrounded by trash, piles of old newspapers, and store records, as a radio played loud music. The shelves of merchandise were haphazard; the coffee counter filthy, the coffeepots empty. Aisles were blocked by stacked merchandise waiting to be shelved. A departing customer said to his buddy, “Forget the restroom, it don’t flush; you don’t need to see how bad it is. Let’s get out of here.”
As I approached the manager, he turned his back and went into the office, leaving me standing at the register. When he came back I asked how business was. He said, “None of your business, that’s how.” If nothing else, I’m persistent. “No, seriously,” I said, “how’s it going what with the prices and all?” He shook his head at me and asked if I was buying anything.
I could have just left and reported the condition of the station to the regional manager. But I decided to play the president card — literally — and handed it to him, explaining why I was there. He looked from my business card to me in silence, then suddenly erupted.
“Do you know you are putting me and my family in the poorhouse? Who do you think you are? I saw Shell’s profit report two weeks ago. You disgust me. You make billions, and I squeeze nickels to keep up with my bills.”
I asked if he was a jobber or if he leased his store. He said he leased it and that his jobber and the wholesaler who supplied him were bad people. I asked about volumes. He said they were down because of the high prices, “so you can make more profits.” I asked if he had been visited lately by anyone from Shell. He said I was the first visitor from Shell he’d met. He said the store had been presented to him as a moneymaking proposition by his jobber and that he had signed a lease about 18 months earlier.
Despite the unpleasant circumstances, I decided not to give up yet. I talked candidly about the pressure of global supply and demand on prices, the failed energy policies in the United States, the country’s dependence on expensive imports, our prohibitions on domestic production, and the challenges for retailers. These were all the themes I was talking about in the outreach tour. I also brought up Shell’s standards for swept forecourts, tidy stores, and clean restrooms, and the critical importance of the store owner as Shell’s face to the customer. We went head to head for a while. He wasn’t buying it; I was still selling it. We didn’t part friends, but we did talk in respectful tones. He said he was surprised that I took this much time to talk with him.