John Weekes

John Weekes is an NZME. News Service reporter based in Wellington.

Consumer Watchdog: Dress up to tank up, or pay first

Better-attired drivers get superior service at petrol stations.

John Weekes dressed up. Photo / Michael Craig
John Weekes dressed up. Photo / Michael Craig

It helps to dress up for movie premieres, dinner at a fine restaurant - or even visits to the petrol station.

After hearing some petrol stations have a two-speed attitude to pre-pay petrol, the Herald on Sunday decided to check the difference clothes make at the pump. Would we be allowed access to petrol before paying when we dressed smartly, and later when we returned with a more casual look?

We went out on day one with a shiny tie, white shirt and jacket. The next day, a hoodie, cap and sunglasses were the garb when we returned to the same stations.

On day one, we had no trouble getting the pump going ourselves before paying. We visited BP stations in Newmarket, Balmoral, Fanshawe St, Avondale and Ellerslie.

In our day two kit, when traffic police pulled up on bikes at Fanshawe St, we held off, lurked around and returned a few minutes later.

Who would steal petrol in view of police? But in spite of our lurking behaviour, the cashier still activated the pump without making us pay in advance.

But at Balmoral BP they refused to activate the pump before we paid. Did Jandals, an old hoodie, sunglasses and a cap make staff suspicious?

Petrol station staffer Jammy Ma said he used his discretion whenever he didn't recognise regular customers, although he confirmed some profiling also happened. Newcomers, young men and members of certain ethnic groups were more likely to be asked to pay before the pump was activated, he said.

"Young guys should be careful. Some races - I'm not racist - but some people from some groups should be careful. I don't want to say (which groups)."

As Ma explained his views, two customers arrived at roughly the same time.

Both men had large, new cars in good condition. One, a white middle-aged man, had no trouble accessing the pump. The other, a young Pacific Islander called Phil, had to prepay. "I'm just used to it," Phil said, before filling up and driving off.

He thought pre-pay prejudice on forecourts based on ethnicity was common.

Ma said the kind of car someone drove was not important.

He recently had an experience with a BMW driver he didn't like the look of. The driver was told to pre-pay, then pretended he had lost his Eftpos card and raced away.

Ma said "drive-offs" by customers not paying happened maybe once a month. Police advised station cashiers to always ask for pre-pay. The official policy was to make everyone pre-pay.


'It's not about the clothes'

BP spokesman Jonty Mills says there's no blanket rule about who is allowed to pump petrol before paying.

"Our process is nothing to do with dress code. The vast majority of our customers are honest."

Instead, the main concern is where cashiers cannot see pumps properly. "Not all sites have pre-pay and not all sites will have pre-pay on every pump." He says new technology around number plate identification has recently helped the company catch dodgy drivers and recover debts.

"Yes, we do have drive-offs, but they're far less than they used to be."

Z Energy spokeswoman Sheena Thomas says the company policy is to have no pre-pay, but exceptions exist. Thomas says a few areas in South Auckland are included in this group because they have "experienced high incidences of drive-offs".

Restrictions normally apply only at night. Some stations with exit lanes near motorways are also considered risky.

And if someone turns up in a car similar to one seen driving off without paying, Thomas says cashiers will naturally use their discretion.

- Herald on Sunday

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