Nova Scotia

Soaring pump prices putting squeeze on N.S. gas stations

Some small retailers in the province say theft and shrinking profit margins are making it more difficult to stay afloat as the prices of gas and diesel continue to soar.

Some owners say they’re facing more theft at the pumps, shrinking profit margins

Some gas stations in Nova Scotia are thinking about switching to prepay only to prevent theft. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

Rural gas station owners in Nova Scotia are feeling the effects of high fuel costs.

Some small retailers say theft and shrinking profit margins are making it more difficult to stay afloat as the prices of gas and diesel soar.

Wendy Crowell has worked at the Ultramar in Tusket for 20 years. She knows that gas theft increases when the prices go up.

"It's been going on for years and years," said Crowell, who now owns the franchise. "I'm not going to tolerate it anymore."

Crowell recently switched her pumps to prepay only after three people in one day drove away without paying. They took $160 worth of gas with them.

"When you're working on small margins of profit in a small business, $160 is a lot of money to try to make up," she said. "I have to pay for that gas."

A gas station in Halifax shows gasoline at $1.75 per litre on Saturday. (Simon Smith/CBC)

Since the switch, Crowell said there have been fewer thefts, but she's losing customers who would rather fill up elsewhere than pay before they pump.

"I gotta try to weigh out the two evils," Crowell said. "Lose my customers or keep losing gas."

According to the RCMP, there were 58 reported incidents of fuel theft from gas stations outside Halifax in February, the highest number for at least the last six months.

Thin margins

Kerry Muise owns a Shell station in Arcadia, which is just down the road from Tusket. Muise said she's closing because her profit margins have become too small to justify staying open.

"We're increasingly starting to lose money on gas sales," Muise said. "We make cents per litre so our profit margin always stays the same."

Muise said most people pay with credit cards, which charge a percentage of each transaction to the retailer, meaning her margins get smaller as gas prices get higher.

She said a retail markup introduced by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board last year to cover losses due to the pandemic had little to no impact on the profitability of her business.

"The costs have all gone up," Muise said. "Insurance, wages, all of those types of things. So it just eats into the profit and at the end of the day, there's no profit left."

Muise said she is lucky. She and her husband have other jobs.

They've found a buyer for their land and building, but she said the loss of a business they've owned for 12 years will leave a hole in the surrounding community.

"We provide five jobs for the community within this little business," she said. "We have fishermen who have come here for their whole career and charged their gas."

Taking action

Like Crowell, another gas station owner on Cape Breton is taking matters into her own hands to prevent people from stealing.

After a couple of "drive-offs" from her Wilsons gas bar, Noelle Christie started posting pictures of the perpetrators on Facebook.

"It's way faster on social media than for me to call the cops," Christie said. "Everybody kind of knows a lot more people."

The community helped Christie track down one person who eventually came back to pay, she said. But she's worried that her Facebook posts might also make her a target for others looking to steal some fuel.

Christie considered switching to prepay only, like Crowell, but worries she would lose customers to nearby retailers who don't make the switch. She said she hopes gas station owners in her area can come together to work on a solution.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Simon Smith

News Reporter

Simon Smith is a reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. He can be reached at simon.smith@cbc.ca, on Twitter as @SimonR_Smith

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