There is no aspect of inflation that gets shoved in our faces like gasoline prices. But why?

Why are gasoline and diesel the only products that have to announce their up-to-date price on signs so big you can’t ignore them if you tried?

Buying gas is certainly a big part of life but it’s rarely make-or-break. Filling up our cars or trucks is a small fraction of total spending by even the most gas-guzzling of commuters. Many people spend more on electricity or heating oil or even bread and milk but nobody forces those companies to wave daily updated prices in our face.

Who requires those gasoline signs, anyway?

I have long wondered about this in a vague sort of way but as fuel prices hit record highs, I figured it was time to find out.

First discovery: It’s not the feds.

There is no federal law of any kind on this topic, I was surprised to find.

Second discovery: It’s not the state of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire, like most states, regulates certain types of gasoline signs to let the public know the price before we start pumping and to ensure that we’re falling for a bait-and-switch.

Protecting consumers is so important, in fact, that regulators have different requirements on the order of updating gas station signs depending on whether the price is rising or falling, says Cheryl Ayer, director of the Division of Weights and Measures, the folks who regulate this stuff.

“You don’t want to ever advertise something when the price is actually higher,” she said.

Despite such specificity, the state law doesn’t actually require those big, in-your-face roadside signs, although they are an option. If they wish, gas stations can legally skip the cost and bother of putting them up and keeping them updated.

But they never wish that.

“It’s psychology. People are used to seeing the signs and coming in,” s aid Jay Patel, owner of Suncook River Convenience Store in Allenstown. “If they don’t see it, they might think you don’t have any gas.”

John Shaer of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association agreed. “I think it’s a red flag for most motorists if the signs aren’t posted,” he said.

Third discovery: It’s you and me who require those signs. They aren’t a regulatory mandate –  they’re a competitive mandate born from decades of habit.

If a station has no roadside gas prices displayed nobody will pull in. We might not even realize they’re a gas station!

The signage dates back to the earliest days of the automobile, a century ago. Since gasoline is pretty much the same everywhere, despite advertising claims to the contrary, advertising your price became the best way to compete.

“It started way back when … for competitive purposes, to advertising the prices as people were driving by,” said Shear.  “Over time, signs got bigger and eventually certain states started to build regulations around it. … A lot of it now is ensuring that the prices advertised on the sign correspond to the prices you actually pay once you get to the pump.”

New Hampshire’s state law says that places selling gas or diesel to the public must do at least two of three things:

post the price on “each fuel dispenser” in a sign visible from both sides with “numerals not less than 4 inches high and 3/4 of an inch in width” 

have a digital or analog “unit price indicator on the face of the dispenser,” or

put the price “on a stationary roadside fuel price sign” that is “clearly visible from the street.”

So putting the price on a sign above each dispenser (“pump topper” in industry lingo) as well on the face of each pump is sufficient. New Hampshire’s gasoline dealers could legally skip the “roadside fuel price sign.”

Ayer said other requirements are that sign prices must agree with each other, and there are regulations about how to display price discounts that accompany things like car washes or loyalty programs, to avoid bait-and-switch.

As for the order of sign updates, it goes like this:

When gas prices are falling, “the dispenser should always be changed first, then the pump topper, then the road sign,” said Ayer. That way, if a customer arrives when the business is in the process of changing signs they won’t be lured by a lower price on the road sign before the pump price is actually lowered.

If the price is rising, however, it’s the other way around. The road sign must be changed first to alert passers-by before the pump price goes up.

All of this is, of course, irrelevant if you own an electric car or do your traveling on a bicycle. But that’s another story.

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