Ed Foss gives advice on buying heating oil

PUBLISHED: 11:43 04 October 2011

Petrol pump

Petrol pump

Archant

Imagine if before you put the nozzle in the tank, you had to go inside the fuel station and negotiate the price you would be paying. The cashier would give you a price per litre and then it would be up to you to argue that price down, or know what other providers are charging in a bid to talk the cashier down by price comparison.

ED Foss says should we be forced into haggling when it comes to such an important service?

IMAGINE for a second that you need to head to the fuel pumps to fill up your car.

It’s enough to send a chill down the spine these days, with the ever-spiralling costs of petrol and diesel.

Friends of mine are often comparing notes on whether they have managed to break the magical £100 barrier when filling from empty.

It’s hardly a competition anyone wants to win, but an increasing number, albeit with the larger fuel tanks, have now managed to achieve that depressing figure.

But it could be worse.

Imagine if before you put the nozzle in the tank, you had to go inside the fuel station and negotiate the price you would be paying. The cashier would give you a price per litre and then it would be up to you to argue that price down, or know what other providers are charging in a bid to talk the cashier down by price comparison.

It’s a laughable concept, isn’t it?

Except when you buy domestic heating oil, it’s exactly what you have to do.

In the (fairly recent) days when heating oil cost 18p a litre, the typical purchase of 1000 litres was not such a huge deal. If you managed to knock the price down to 17.5p, it was a fiver saved (I won’t complicate this by referring to the five per cent tax due on the quoted price, although that has become more significant over the years with rising prices).

Now with the price floating around 50p to 65p a litre - depending on where you live - the savings you can make, if you know how, are much higher.

In my own case, when I ordered a few weeks ago, the first price quoted was 59.16p a litre. With the tax due, that worked out as £621.18 for 1000 litres.

Four phone calls later to other companies and some fairly severe bargaining saw that price come down to 53.9p a litre, a total of £565.95. Four calls and half an hour saved more than £55.

That’s all very well for me, pats on the back all round one might say. But could I have driven the price down even more if I had pursued it further? Could I have saved more by joining a group buying club? The answer is almost certainly ‘yes’ to both questions.

The real objection I have to all of this, which is shared by many other domestic heating oil buyers that I know, is that it creates a deep social iniquity.

The whole situation plays into the hands of the savvy, informed customer who is happy to argue and cajole and, in all honesty, possibly push the truth a little hard when chasing a cheap price.

It works against the vulnerable person who doesn’t know how to negotiate or doesn’t feel comfortable doing so.

And those vulnerable people are, almost by definition, the ones who can least afford to pay the higher prices which others are managing to talk their way out of, if only in part.

And when it is a commodity as important to health and welfare as heating oil, it seems it must be time to bring an end to this unfairness.

Unfortunately I don’t see a lobby of any great weight pushing the point on this subject.

INFO: For more personal-finance news and views, visit www.mymoney24.co.uk.

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