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Published: Monday, 9/20/2004

Web sites help fuel motorists' gas-buying decisions

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

What he found was www.gasbuddy.com, an all-volunteer Web site whose members post whatever they pay wherever they go, and whose results are available for public perusal.

"It's helped me drastically in saving on gas - especially finding out cheaper stations closer to where I live," said Mr. Sievert, a Walbridge resident. "I save a couple of bucks every time I fill up, which works out to $100 to $150 a year."

The most prominent of several similar sites, Gasbuddy.com is the brainchild of Jason Toews, a computer programmer from suburban Minneapolis who said he had become frustrated with buying a tankful only to drive past a station down the road offering gas for less than he had just paid.

He and a high school friend, Dustin Coupal, created the site in June, 2000, and Internet interest continues to grow. In recent months, its visitor count has skyrocketed to more than 200,000 hits daily, compared to just 25,000 in late 2003.

"As word spread, it picked up quite a bit," Mr. Toews said.

"When I first got on the Web site, there was not a whole lot of local posting," said Mr. Sievert, who discovered Gasbuddy about 18 months ago. "But it's a lot more active now. It's the community helping each other. I really hope it does something about keeping these gas prices low."

The site's most basic function works by entering a ZIP code into a search engine, which yields a chart of recent price reports from nearby locations. Locations also may be chosen by clicking on a map.

Because the Web site relies entirely on volunteer reporters, a caveat on the page notes that the information is not guaranteed to be current or accurate.

A check Friday afternoon showed reports ranging between $1.689 and $1.979 in the Toledo area for self-service unleaded regular, although the two lowest prices were reported on Wednesday, before a 20-cent price spike hit many area stations.

The lowest report from Friday was $1.749, at American Petroleum at Detroit Avenue and Monroe Street.

Michael Weeber of Blissfield said since he "stumbled onto it on the Internet" about three months ago, he checks Gasbuddy.com every time he leaves home to drive to the Toledo area to see if he should buy gas in Michigan or wait until he gets to Ohio.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, it saves me money," he said. "Even though they just raised the taxes in Toledo, [gas is] still more expensive in Michigan."

Kristi Jackson of Toledo's Point Place neighborhood said the site saves her time as well as money.

"I don't have to run all over the place looking for gas, I can just go on there and find the cheapest gas," Miss Jackson said.

Several other gas-price sites exist on the Internet, including gas123.com and gaspricewatch.com, but Gasbuddy.com appears to be the most active. On Friday, almost all of the gaspricewatch.com listings for Toledo were more than a week old, and all local listings on gas123.com were blank. Gasbuddy price reports remain on the site's current-listings page only for 60 hours.

Linda Casey, a spokesman for Marathon Ashland Refining and Marketing in Findlay, said gas-price Web sites can be "misleading" because of out-of-date information. Marathon Ashland's Speedway and SuperAmerica brands update their stations' prices three times daily on the speedway.com Web site, which is more accurate, she said.

Speedway.com, however, does not list Marathon station prices - much less those of corporate competitors.

Olivia Summons, a Sunoco spokesman, said her company is "very aware" of the gas-price Web sites and considers them to be "a service to the consumer.

"We believe our gasoline is priced fairly and competitively," Ms. Summons added.

Along with current gas price information, Gasbuddy allows visitors to create charts comparing price trends for up to three different metropolitan areas across the country for time periods going back as far as two years. Registered users also may track their own gas consumption and read conservation tips.

Gasbuddy's trend charts for Toledo and other Ohio cities illustrate what newcomers to the region have said for years: Retail prices here are much more volatile than they are on the East or West coasts.

The charts also show that Toledo prices are consistently cheaper than Detroit's and track very closely with those in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.

Ms. Summons said she wasn't sure if sites like Gasbuddy would cause prices to become more or less changeable.

Ms. Casey said she believes gas station price signs will continue to play a bigger role in motorists' buying decisions.

"As you're driving down the road, your gas gauge is the most important factor in deciding when to look for gas," Ms. Casey said.

"People select based on price or, we hope, on customer service and product quality."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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