As convenience stores around the country gear up for their busiest trading period of the year, industry leaders are calling for tougher penalties for motorists who drive off without paying after filling up with fuel.
Fines, demerit points and licence suspensions could all be considered to deter offenders from a surprisingly common practice which harms small business owners and has broader safety implications.
According to Robert Anderson, Director of APCO Service Stations, itâ€™s a major issue for petrol and convenience retailers, costing some stores thousands of dollars each month in lost revenue.
â€œDriving off without paying for fuel is stealing, plain and simple, however from a legal perspective it is not as cut and dry as shoplifting. This perspective needs to change,â€ Mr Anderson said.
â€œIf a store owner permits a customer to leave without paying, regardless of how innocent the mistake may be, theyâ€™ve effectively entered into a civil agreement with that customer which canâ€™t be legally enforced. If they donâ€™t return to pay, the store owner bears the cost.
â€œThen there are offenders who recognise a chance not to pay and make an opportunistic decision, while the hard line criminal element is often more brazen in its approach with some perpetrators even waving to store operators as they drive away.
â€œAll in all, itâ€™s been a problem for the industry for a long time and one that typically escalates at this time of year, when stores are much busier,â€ he said.
Mr Anderson said the problem inevitably leads to increased pump prices, an issue which impacts all consumers at a time when fuel prices are already high and household budgets are under stress.
â€œItâ€™s important to remember that fuel is an extremely low margin product. If a small business owner loses $400 in drive off circumstances, they need to sell around 30,000 litres of fuel to recover that lost revenue based on current fuel prices.
â€œOf course, the loss of impulse purchasing opportunities, which are incredibly important to convenience stores, heightens the problem for small business owners.
â€œThere are also safety implications, not only in terms of the security risk presented by repeat offenders but also the danger presented to other motorists filling up at the time, or traffic in the area as offenders attempt a quick getaway.
â€œAlternatives such as pre-paid systems punish customers who do the right thing and simply arenâ€™t as convenient, which is therefore at odds with our business model, while drive off thieves will simply target stores using current systems.
â€œWe would like to see fines or demerit points attached to this practice to deter motorists, similar to the way speeding attracts fines and loss of licence points. Without this kind of deterrent the issue will continue to harm small business owners and leave police effectively powerless to help them,â€ Mr Anderson.
Executive Director of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS) Jeff Rogut supports tougher penalties for motorists who drive off without paying for fuel.
â€œIn some US states, the penalties for gasoline theft involve fines and licence suspension, and these measures have proven successful in curbing this practice. Perhaps it is time we attached penalties to drive offs in Australia, to reflect the seriousness of the act and the impacts on small business owners,â€ Mr Rogut said.
â€œConvenience stores need policy support in the current retail environment more than ever. The fact that a practice like this is not taken seriously from a legal perspective deserves further consideration,â€ he added.