DALLAS – It's a scene gas station workers say is becoming increasingly common and frightening: Customers angry over gas prices nearing $3 a gallon storm in and decide to take it out on the employees.
"They just yell and scream," said Selam Berhe, assistant manager at a Dallas Tetco station. "They think it's only us that are high-priced."
Incidents of consumer anger and gas-station crime have made headlines across the country, including the killing of a gas station owner in Alabama last week by a driver attempting to steal $52 worth of gas.
Berhe recalled the particularly belligerent behavior of a man who ranted about the prices to everyone in the station.
"He walked in the store and said, 'Do you work here? This is ridiculous,'" Berhe said. "He was telling each and every customer. I was like, I don't make the prices."
Gas prices are about $2.56 in Texas, up from $1.80 at the same time last year.
Bruce Hutton, professor of marketing at the University of Denver, said the high prices could spark even more angst than the frustrating long lines during the 1970s energy crisis because the current situation is far less clear-cut.
The 1970s crisis sparked from obvious oil shortages. But today, despite growing inventories, numerous factors are combining to drive up prices — refinery problems, growing demand from China and energy traders worried over capacity tightness.
Hutton, who has done extensive research on consumer decision-making and energy usage information, said there's also a sense of entitlement among consumers today.
"In some respects, that makes it a whole lot more anxious or anxiety-producing," he said.
Rae Dougher, manager of energy market issues at the Washington-based American Petroleum Institute (search), said outbursts directed at employees are common.
"The higher the prices, I think, the more frustrated and angry consumers are becoming," Dougher said. "I think that they always suffer from consumers' wrath."
She noted that, although gas prices are soaring, gas station owners are often suffering squeezed profits or even losing money — and they still have to deal with irritated customers who blame them for high costs.
"I think it's hard on a lot of the retail owners and workers to do business," Dougher said.
Bobby Poudel, who works at a Dallas Citgo station, said business has been undeniably less pleasant since prices started skyrocketing in June.
"A lot of people show their anger to me," said Poudel, 26. "Sometimes I've got to say, 'That's not me!'"
Berhe said she's looking forward to lower prices, but in the meantime people at the gas station say they'll just have to put up with some abuse.
"We just need to smile," said clerk Elizabeth Garza. "If someone tells you something, you have to smile and say, `Have a nice day.'"