Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

CONYERS -- Local business operators said they are worried about how rising gasoline prices will affect their bottom line while working to keep customers spending money with them.

Gasoline prices rose 4 percent last week to a national average of $3.29 per gallon. That's the highest level ever for this time of year, when prices are typically low. With unrest in the Middle East and North Africa lifting the price of oil to the $100-a-barrel range, analysts say pump prices are likely headed higher, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Prices for regular, unleaded gasoline in Rockdale and Newton counties crept near $3.30 a gallon at local stations and convenience stores Monday.

Bobby Schrober, owner of BC Cab in Conyers, said they have discussed increasing rates but are reluctant to do so for fear of losing customers.

"We are hurting a little bit even though we're not changing our prices," he said. "We can't take it out on our customers, you know, but eventually we're going to have to do something. If prices keep rising in the summer, we're going to have to raise our prices."

Schrober said his drivers pay for gas themselves and that last year drivers could fill up their cars for a day on $30. Now, it's moved up to $40 or $50 per day.

He said higher gas prices also present a challenge to keep drivers. Schrober said some drivers quit when gas prices climb because it eats into their fares.

"It really does hurt them on gas compared to a year ago," Schrober said. "Where they were making $200 a day, then put $30 in the gas tank and come back with $170. Now, they're having to put $50 in gas."

An employee at Papa John's in Covington said even though the drivers are paid mileage, the cost of gasoline is paid by the driver, and with prices rising, it is hard to make up the difference.

"The gas comes out of their (the drivers') own pocket. They're paid mileage, but companies like Papa John's, or any pizza delivery company, is not going to catch up on mileage as quickly as the prices go up," she said.

Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, said the increased gas prices are also difficult on local retail owners. He explained the owners pay for their gas delivery up front. When the suppliers add 10 cents to a gallon, the retailer will have to adjust the price at the pumps to cover the cost of the next delivery.

Even after delivery retailers feel the pinch, Tudor said. He explained more people use credit cards to purchase gasoline. Credit card companies' fees are based on the retail price. As it goes up, so do the fees, he said.

"When gas is at $3 a gallon, we're paying 7.5 cents to the credit card company (per transaction)," Tudor said. "When gas goes to $4 a gallon, we're paying 10 cents to the credit card company for the same transaction. So we've just lost 2.5 cents on margin and nothing else changed. It's tough on us."

Tudor added that retailers lose more when people cut back on coffee and snacks purchases -- items the retailers can make more profit from.

Or they just cut back on driving.

Sandra Knight of Covington is a home health care nurse and travels in Newton and Butts counties. She said the rise in gas prices has meant she has cut back on all driving except for work and going to the grocery store. She said she used to be able to drive all week on $25 worth of gas, but now the same expenditure is used up in about two days.

Drivers often get angry when gasoline prices spike for reasons that aren't apparent, such as refinery problems or overseas demand for oil.

This time, though, the dramatic news reports from the Middle East are making customers more understanding.

Tudor also said that there is not a shortage of gasoline like there was after Hurricane Katrina knocked out Gulf oil production in 2005. He blamed the rise in prices on speculators in the future commodities markets.

"They are basically placing a bet things in the Mideast are going to get worse and that bids up the price of gas," Tudor said. "I'm not sure how much of it is speculation, but the last time we had $4 gas, about 25 percent of the cost of motor fuel was the cost of speculation."