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Dismay at "misleading" Watchdog programme on fuel prices

21 September, 2012

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) and forecourt retailers have reacted in dismay to a BBC1 Watchdog programme on wholesale fuel prices featuring AA president Edmund King.

Brian Madderson, chairman of the PRA, has written to the series producer of Watchdog highlighting the “misleading portrayal of independent forecourt retailers” in the programme aired on Wednesday.

He stressed that the independent sector is 60% of total site numbers with four hypermarkets accounting for 15% and the balance of 35% being major oil company-owned and operated sites. “These sectors have quite different product costs and therefore pricing policies,” said Madderson. “It is inaccurate and misleading to make generalised statements about ‘retailers’ when each sector is so differentiated. Our criticism applies not only to the programme editor and producer but also to the guest from the AA.

“To our knowledge, the AA has never owned and/or operated a filling station and is unlikely to have in-depth knowledge of the industry as was patently obvious during the interview.”

Madderson has emphasised to Watchdog that the PRA was not asked for any data with which to properly inform the programme makers nor asked for interview either before or during the programme airing. He said it was inappropriate to have a commercially biased motoring organisation as the sole commentator on the piece, and that while Watchdog chose to pin the blame for the rising price of fuel on the retailer, it failed to note that petrol forecourts – largely independents – are closing at the alarming rate of 300/400 sites each year.

“If independent retailers were truly profiteering as your programme suggested then surely the sector would be booming rather than declining,” he said. “The programme appeared to ignore any comments from the cross-party fuels debate in the House of Commons last Thursday which also focused on the declining number of independent retailers, especially in rural areas. Many MPs at that debate referred to the plight of independents caught in the cross-fire of aggressive, sometimes below cost, pricing of hypermarkets and certain oil companies.

“The OFT Inquiry mentioned during the programme is not yet an Inquiry,” Madderson added. “It is a formal call for evidence which was announced on September 5 in response to the detailed report submitted by the PRA to the OFT earlier this year. With overall fuel volumes declining, partly due to the continuing recession and partly to fuel efficiency improvements, the independents’ trade is being squeezed with some retailers quoting volume reductions between 15 and 20% year to date. With margins also tightening, the financial outlook for independent retailers is dire. Comments made the AA’s Edmond King on Watchdog will add further pain to this already struggling sector and heighten the tension between our cashiers and their customers.”