What’s it like at the area’s BP stations?

07/15/2010 12:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO
A customer fills up at the BP gas station in Mattituck on Monday. Some customers report being reluctant to patronize the company since the April oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

You don’t have to visit the Gulf Coast to see financial fallout from the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Try Mattituck.

Ali Sahin, who runs a BP gas station there on Main Road, says his sales of fuel have fallen nearly 15 percent since the oil-drilling rig explosion in April in the Gulf of Mexico, for which many people hold the company formerly known as British Petroleum primarily to blame.

He thinks independent BP station owners like himself are victims of guilt by association with the oil giant. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “I wish my customers could understand that point.” Mr. Sahin is in a bind. “People are asking us to switch [brands],” he says, “but we have a contract for five years.” And that contract has four more years to go.

So for now he, like other BP station owners on the North Fork and beyond, must wrestle with a consumer backlash against their brand of gas. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that just 6 percent of Americans rated the British company favorably; only Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat have scored lower.

Employees at area BP stations — none of which is company owned — say they haven’t suffered the vandalism that has afflicted dealers in other places such as New York City, where some outlets were coated with brown paint after the massive oil spill triggered by the explosion, or Mississippi, where one BP station reported gunshots fired through its windows at night.

Those working at BP stations west of Mattituck offer a much brighter picture of customer traffic at their establishments although, unlike Mr. Sahin, they have not provided statistics. Conversations with patrons there indicate the British company’s distinctive green sunflower sign may have lost some of its drawing power. The BP station in Miller Place is a case in point.

“We don’t see any change in business,” says one of the station’s managers, Arshad Ali. “We’re steady. BP is very competitive. They keep prices low, so people are still coming.” But not people like Andrew Weaver.

Last week, he was filling his Honda Pilot SUV at the Hess station down the street from Mr. Ali’s station, which he formerly patronized. Mr. Weaver says of BP, “Given the choice, I avoid it — absolutely. It’s one way to express my opinion.”

Sam Gold, a manager at the BP station in Rocky Point, said, “In the last three or four months my business has increased.” Yet some of his customers apparently are reluctant ones.

Asked if she had any qualms about fueling her Mercedes sedan at the station, Debbie Loscalzo gestured toward her daughter in the front seat and a woman in the back. “They told me not to come,” she said sheepishly, “but my gas light was on. I had no choice.”

You could find similar attitudes at the Valero filling station in Cutchogue, a four-minute drive from Mr. Sahin’s BP station. Bill Engels, who says he’s never bought gas at BP stations, confessed that he had purchased kerosene in past winters for his space heaters at the BP dealer on Route 48 in Peconic.

“I won’t do it anymore,” he vowed.

The Peconic station stopped selling gas in early May to permit installation of new gas tanks as part of a county-mandated program to protect the local aquifer. The station was set to resume fuel sales this week.

For its part, BP is trying to be supportive of its dealers. Pasted to the front door of the Rocky Point station is a company-distributed message telling patrons, “This station is owned and operated by people right here in your community.”

It goes on to say, “We support BP’s response efforts in the Gulf of Mexico” and thanks customers for their continued loyalty “during this difficult challenge.”

The “locally owned, locally operated” theme is a part of $60-million BP marketing package unveiled late last month that includes reduced credit card fees to retailers, more help with national advertising and returning to distributors in the East and Midwest a penny for every gallon of gas they buy at terminals. Distributors on the Gulf Coast receive two cents a gallon.

Such marketing support from BP may explain why the catastrophe in the gulf has apparently failed to diminish the reverence some gas station employees hold for the widely vilified company. Mr. Ali, the manager at the station in Miller Place, declares, “BP is the best company in the world. They help you out.”

Some motorists also cut the company plenty of slack.

Asked if he avoided BP stations because of the devastating oil spill, a customer at the Hess station in Mattituck who identified himself only as Brian said, “It really doesn’t make any difference to me. BP is “attempting to clean it up. It could have happened to any one of the oil companies, due to lax inspections.”

For now, though, the BP station operators’ best hope may lie in attracting customers like Steve Pubins, who was gassing up his Jeep Grand Cherokee at Mr. Sahlin’s dealership in Mattituck while his wife sat in the car.

When he pulled into the station, “My wife said, ‘BP! What, are you crazy?’ I said I need gas. In the big picture, the little guy didn’t do it.”

It’s unfair to penalize him, he says.

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