More than a few people driving through Barry’s Bay in eastern Ontario this past week had to do a double-take on the three large digital signs displayed by three local gas stations here.
When most people in Ontario were paying 97 cents a litre on average for regular unleaded gasoline, people filling up in Barry’s Bay were paying 88 cents.
“I usually get my gas where I get my smokes, at the reserve in Golden Lake,” said Shayla Meek at MacEwen’s County Line Express in the heart of Barry’s Bay. “I usually pay about $1.47 for premium gas, but today it’s $1.07 here. It’s even lower now than the reserve.”
A few weeks ago, when MacEwen’s replaced the Esso branding at this Barry’s Bay gas station at the corner of Highway 60 and 62, MacEwen’s began driving down its local gas prices to attract new business.
But in some ways MacEwen’s was only entering a price war that’s already been going on in Barry’s Bay for years.
The Ultramar gas station, now managed by Jackie Chiang and located along Highway 60 in the east end of town, by all accounts had started a price war about six years ago. It left Barry’s Bay with one of the longest-running lowest average gasoline prices in the area — with one notable exception: The Golden Lake Reserve.
Or as one veteran of the gas wars in Barry’s Bay who preferred to remain anonymous said: “A big part of it is the reserve. It is usually six to 10 cents below our average, but this (move by MacEwen’s) is the first time a Barry’s Bay gas station has undercut the reserve.”
The real driving force behind the local price war begins with the usual seasonal change in the automobile gas market. The high summer volume of retail gasoline customers usually decreases by Labour Day or Thanksgiving at the latest, and so when the market grows quiet and there are fewer customers, particularly in rural, less populated areas, some nationally branded gas companies tend to get more aggressive.
Or, as another keen observer put it: “They want to get a bigger part of that shrinking seasonal market, but with COVID this year, more people are staying around and so the fight is even worth more to them.”
Where local retail gas prices are set can also make a significant difference. In the case of Ultramar, Jackie Chaing says his prices are set each morning by his Toronto head office. The Shell Station, however, sets its own price locally. Either way, those prices are attracting a lot of out-of-town attention.
Richard Drydak arrived at the Ultramar in Barry’s Bay recently to gas up for his return trip to Toronto.
“On my way up, I gassed up on Highway 11 north of Orilla, just outside of Barrie, where I paid $0.94 per litre; that’s usually the least expensive Ultramar anywhere near Toronto, but when we saw the sign that said $0.88 per litre, we said we’re going to stop here because you can’t beat that price!”
MacEwen’s and Ultramar gas stations in Barry’s Bay are also responding to the increasingly steeper competition now being offered up by the full-service Shell Station in Barry’s Bay located along Highway 62 on the edge of town.
Unlike the other two Barry’s Bay gas stations that depend almost exclusively on their retail gasoline sales and retail store sales to make ends meet, the new Shell Station, owned and operated by Mark Stamplecoskie has, along with its gas pumps and robust retail store, a full-time licensed mechanic, a state-of-the-art car and truck wash, and a popular chip truck, a favorite with Madawaska Valley District High School students from across the street.
Michelle Recoskie, who works at Stamplecoskie’s Shell Station, says business is definitely up.
“We’re more busy because of the price.”
She used to co-own the Combermere Service Centre that gave up its gas pumps years ago. She understands why customers like the lower prices but she’s also quick to remind people that retail gasoline sales have a very thin margin for gas station owners.
"There’s no money in it.”
Still, she knows people will drive out of their way to get a good bargain, and Barry’s Bay gas prices are certainly a good bargain while they last. Take Alicia O’Brian who stopped by the Shell Station on the weekend.
“I live in Quadville,” she said. “I would normally get gas in Golden Lake, but when the price is this low here, I come here.”
Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Eganville Leader