The Power of Suggestion

Assisting service station owners in offering ethanol-blended fuels has been part of my job for a long time. About 15 years ago, I stood at a tradeshow table at a meeting of regional fuel retailers and suppliers. It was not a big show. However, the attendees were decision-makers who represented a large portion of regional fuel sales.

As attendees filed past on their way to the noon luncheon, I noticed an older fellow hanging back. Eventually, he made his way over and introduced himself as an owner of a family-run convenience store in a neighboring state. Glancing around as if protecting a secret, he shared this story.

Back in the early 1990s, when 10 volume percent ethanol gasoline (E10) was still new to some areas, he decided to start selling it. He’d done research and recognized E10 could offer him as well as his customers a price advantage. He checked his equipment, had the main underground storage tanks cleaned, and settled on a supply agreement with a wholesale fuel jobber. Anticipating his first load of E10, he even put up “10% American Ethanol for Cleaner Air” decals on his pumps.

But that load did not arrive. His supplier had incorrectly recorded the order and planned to start shipments the following week. No big deal, the fellow thought, his station’s sale of E10 would only be delayed a few days. That’s where my new friend paused his story for effect, gave me a grin, and asked, “Can you guess what happened next?”

He recounted how over those few days before his first load of E10 actually arrived, clerks at the station received customer complaints. “A few claimed their cars ‘weren’t running right’ because of that new ethanol fuel,” he said shaking his head. “But the only thing that had changed was the pump stickers. It was all the power of suggestion! Heck, if someone told them ethanol broke their car radio, some folks would believe it!”

Still shaking his head, he waved good-bye and trotted off to the lunchroom.

Certainly, a lot has changed since then. Ethanol-blended fuels such as E10, E85 flex fuels, and 15 percent ethanol E15 are much more common and better understood by retailers. Today, the vast majority of U.S. gasoline is blended with ethanol. Over the last couple of years, more than 1,400 stations in 30 states have begun selling the new 88 octane gasoline blend of E15 (more than 250 in Minnesota). E15 can be used in any gasoline automobile built after model year 2000. Given its price advantage and extra octane, we’re sure to see a lot more E15 in the future.

Yet there will always be detractors who fight progress. Whenever I read a claim that fuel ethanol is somehow ‘bad’...I remember that wise old station owner and his lesson on the power of suggestion.

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