Character test at the gas pump

“The true nature of your character,” a commenter on a CBS blog notes today, “is what you do when no one is watching.”

It was spawned by the actions of our friends to the east, who couldn’t pump the gas fast enough at a mispriced gas station in Minocqua, Wisc., (it’s northwest of Rhinelander).

The price was supposed to be $3.229 per gallon. But an employee set the pumps for 33 cents per gallon.

“There were cars two deep at each of my pumps,” the store manager said. The main store sign had the correct price. “I was very upset that there’s that many dishonest people. They knew there was a problem, and they took advantage of an employee’s mistake and I think that’s terrible.”

And you? If nobody’s watching, would you have pumped?

  • Gail

    Regarding the question, before pumping gas, I would have asked the clerks if they were having an unannounced special on gas prices. I heard a bit of the story somewhere else and assumed it was about a special event promoting the business. The same character quote was in a scene in the TV show Friday Night Lights a couple of weeks ago. How many times do people think of this quote and do the right thing when they find a lost wallet, an item they left on their grocery cart that the clerk didn’t ring up, an obviously wrong price on an expensive item, etc?

  • Linda

    Though it would be tempting to pump away, I would let the clerk know that the price appeared to be incorrect. With gasoline, the temptation to justify an unethical—what I believe taking advantage of the mistake is—action, doing the right thing isn’t a pick when it’s most convenient for me decision. It’s a choice made based on principles that support the kind of person I want to be: a person of integrity.

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org Jeremy

    I would fill my and pay with a card at the pump so I didn’t have to go inside.

  • Scott

    None of the comments so far are from people who bothered to read the original story, in which it is clear that the sales all occurred after the attendant had left for the evening but left the pump open for credit-card-only sales. So the option of easily alerting him didn’t exist.

    Given that, we may yet be asking the wrong question. Let me ask, rather: if you were running a gas station, and had access to psychological evidence that people were more likely to buy your gas at $3.229/gallon than at $3.23, and that the difference in consumer interest was far more than 1/10th the difference between gas at $3.22 and that at $3.23, would you just set your price at the more honest rate of $3.22 or $3.23, or would you set it at the psychological tricky rate of $3.229, knowing that this would slightly increase your profit over time, but making it harder for consumers to make completely rational decisions about where to make their purchases?

    Round up or round down, gas station owners. Don’t give us 4-digit prices that go up and down each day. In fact, round it to the nearest nickel and don’t change it so often. Make it easier on us. And on your harried clerks. If you don’t, you have only yourselves to blame if people buy the gas at the price you set, mistakenly or not.

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/objects_in_mirror/ Julia Schrenkler

    Nah, not for a mistake. If a station had a “Remember the good old days” price special, I wouldn’t either, because I loathe crazed car lineups.

    But Bob you got me thinking. To completely put the scenario into character-test mode: As soon as I noticed the price, I don’t think I would have contacted a ton of people. Did you catch that? “Word of the bargain spread fast in the rural northern Wisconsin community, with 42 people buying 586 gallons of gas in an hour and 45 minutes.” It wasn’t enough to top off the tank, it seemed to tap the phone tree.

    Maybe the question isn’t, “If nobody’s watching, would you have pumped?” but “If nobody’s watching, who would you call?”

  • http://n466pg.blogspot.com Daveg

    Well, I had a bout with temptation when the roof repair fellow came to my door and said I could have a brand new roof at the cost of my insurance company because there had been a hailstorm in my suburb. The insurance companies were just approving every claim without proof of damage required. The thing is, my section of the ‘burb didn’t get much more than pellet-sized hail, so I knew that there was no damage to my roof. I sent him (and the flood of others that soon followed) packing.

    My next door neighbors? New roof. I never quite felt the same way about them.

    Regarding gas station pricing ethics, I’ve noticed that our local stattion will lower the pump price first, then the street-side advertised price next when the price decreases. For increases, they change the advertised price first, then raise the price at the pumps.

    I like that.

    Of course, the prices are still $n.nn9, but they all do that and have been for decades – I’ve grown accustomed to it and automatically round up.