AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Q Mart on Wells Branch Parkway was a hopping spot Thursday night. Dozens of cars crammed into the store’s parking lot, drivers hoping the store wouldn’t run out of fuel before they got a chance to pump.
The $3.49 a gallon price for regular unleaded didn’t seem to be turning people away, especially those who decided to pay the price to keep from losing their place in line.
“$3.59 a gallon,” Mark Novick yelled as he saw the price for a gallon of unleaded pop up on the Q Mart pump.
“Start getting worried — thinking am I going to be able to fill up and be stuck with an empty tank,” Novick said as he ripped his receipt from the pump. Novick said he didn’t realize the price was so high until he’d already paid.
“So, I’ll get a receipt and I’ll see about turning that into the state,” Novick said, also mentioning he’d taken pictures of the pump price and was handing all of that over to the Texas Attorney General’s Office in a formal price gouging complaint.
Directly across the street from the Q Mart, the Exxon station’s advertised price for a gallon of unleaded was $2.39. There were also dozens of people waiting in line there.
The question: why was the Q Mart so much higher?
We went inside the Q Mart to find a manager to ask about why the price there was so much higher than any other station in town that we investigated that night. The assistant manager called the store’s general manager and put the GM on speaker phone.
The GM, who would not give KXAN her name, said she was directed to increase the price to $3.49 a gallon. When we asked the manager who told her to do that, she would not answer the question.
The manager suggested she could “shut the gas down,” then explained the reason the store increased the pump price to the highest amount in the city, “We’re trying to detour [customers] and stop them from coming,” the manager said over the speaker phone.
We walked across the street to the Exxon to shoot video of the people pumping gas there. Around 10 minutes later, we went back to the Q Mart to find the pumps shut down and yellow plastic bags over the pump handles.
Before Hurricane Harvey’s first rainband ever reached Austin, we set out to watch for price gouging as evacuees made their way toward Austin along the US Highway 290 evacuation route. We surveyed around 30 gas stations between Austin and Giddings, documenting the posted prices to later compare those prices as the storm’s impact would later likely drive up the cost of fuel.
Of all the gas stations we tracked along the route, the Wells Branch Parkway Q Mart was the highest-priced fuel of all. We found the second-highest pump prices at another Q Mart store — this one was in Round Rock.
“I sold 8,000 gallons of gas in 4 hours — at $2.99,” the Q Mart clerk told KXAN Investigative Reporter Jody Barr.
The clerk said the price was at $2.40 when he clocked in at 4 p.m. Thursday, but the store later increased the price of regular unleaded to $2.99 a gallon.
“The reason we jacked it up wasn’t price gouging,” the clerk said. “We were trying to have gas throughout the weekend.”
“That sounds like it could be interpreted as price gouging,” Barr pointed out. “Well, I just work here,” the clerk told Barr. “So, to me, I don’t really care either way. I just show up to work.”
Latest price gouging complaints
As of Tuesday, the Texas Attorney General’s Office reported 451 price gouging complaints filed with the office’s anti-price gouging unit. Of those, gas stations accounted for 202 complaints, the highest number of complaints at that point.
As of this report, the AG’s office tells KXAN the public reported 1,992 price gouging complaints. Of those, gas station price gouging complaints accounted for 636 — a 214 percent increase in just two days.
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request Friday for comment on the Q Mart pricing we uncovered.
Penalties for price gouging in Texas carry some of the toughest monetary fines in the nation. Each price gouging instance could bring fines of up to $20,000. If the victim of price gouging is 65 years or older, fines for each instance of price gouging could climb as high as $250,000.
If you think you’ve seen a price gouging instance or you were the victim of price gouging, you can file a complaint with the state AG’s office by phone at 1-800-621-0508 or file a complaint online by clicking this link.