Gas connoisseur

Economic prankster Rob Cockerham says buying cheap gas makes gas cheaper.

Rob Cockerham’s Web site directs fuel consumers to the cheapest gas in town.

Rob Cockerham’s Web site directs fuel consumers to the cheapest gas in town.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Zipping through traffic in his red Acura, Rob Cockerham doesn’t look like a one-man economic force, but that’s the role he wants to play. He’s on one of his daily missions to visit a handful of gas stations, note their prices and report the best deals on his Web site. By steering consumers to the lowest price, Cockerham hopes, he’ll jump-start competition in the city and bring down prices.

“I want more people to buy the cheapest gas possible,” Cockerham says, flying down the freeway through the concrete ribbons of the Highway 50-Highway 99 interchange. “If people spend money at only the cheaper stations, then that will put pressure on prices and tend to force them lower.”

Cockerham got this bee in his bonnet two years ago, when gas prices shot up and his co-workers at an Internet company started telling one another where to find cheap gas. He started sending out computer messages on where to find cheap gas until prices dropped. Early this year, when prices went crazy high, Cockerham rededicated himself to getting the word out. Cockerham plotted cheap-gas retailers on a map of the city and then set out to photograph and catalog 40 stations with the best prices. The new Web page went up in mid-April.

“I want to make it hard to sell expensive gasoline by increasing competition, and I think I can do that by making the information super easy to get,” he says, exiting the freeway at Sutterville Road., Cockerham’s highly trafficked, award-winning Web site, also hosts several other features, including ones about his humorous pranks (which include erecting fake historical markers and public-service announcements) and a narrative called “How much is inside?” that deals with the volume of consumer goods like tubes of toothpaste or kegs of beer. Everything, including the gas page, is illustrated with comical digital photos. He is more serious, but still humorous, about the gas-price effort, which he calls Gasoline Connoisseurs of Sacramento. (The definition of “connoisseur,” he notes on his Web page, is closer to “expert” than “snob.”)

Cockerham has been graphing the change in gas prices and mapping the best deals, and he has enlisted several friends and volunteers to report price updates. The page also debunks the myth of high-octane gas and explains his formula for determining how far is too far to drive in search of cheap gas.

Cruising down Franklin Boulevard, Cockerham pulls over across from the Franklin Gas and Shop and notes the price of regular—$1.81—on a notepad. Like almost all the other stations in Cockerham’s inventory, this is a small, independent station with no corporate logo on a pole out front. The best prices he’s found all are at little no-brand, independent places. Even corporate discounters like Arco (AM/PM) and Costco aren’t the lowest around, he’s found. Two stations, both at $1.76, tied for the top spot last week. They were the Choice Gas at Del Paso Boulevard and Arden Way and the Stop and Shop on Folsom Boulevard at 35th Street. (Employees at both locations said they knew they had the best prices in town, but they hadn’t heard about Cockerham’s Web effort.)

Cockerham, 34, works as a graphic designer at home in Midtown. But, thanks to the economics classes he loaded up on at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he can offer a professorial rationale for his effort, which is, in economic terms, to shift the demand curve.

Gasoline, as a consumer commodity, has an inelastic demand curve because people can’t stop buying it if prices increase. “It’s easy to feel helpless when the price goes up because you don’t have an easy remedy at hand,” he says, cruising by an Arco station. “You can’t just start buying corn oil instead.”

A product with an elastic demand curve, on the other hand, would be something like fish sticks. “Price goes up, you just stop buying it. Price goes way down, to 1 cent for fish sticks, you’ll probably find yourself buying a lot more fish sticks,” Cockerham says.

Because the market works that way, consumers will accept rapid increases in gas prices more than other products. And it is that acceptance—that helplessness—that Cockerham thinks he could change by telling consumers about the best prices.

Cockerham says he doesn’t expect to change the total demand for gas. Driving is hard to give up, and he’s unapologetic in his refusal to take the bus, carpool or even slow down.

Cockerham also is humble about his impact and acknowledges that he couldn’t have had one at all yet. But, he’s also hopeful that, if the project achieves a critical mass, with dozens of scouts reporting prices and hundreds of consumers checking them, he may succeed in making a small dent in the market. “While I don’t think we can change the total amount of gas we buy, I think we can affect the price by changing where we buy it.”

Cockerham says he’s giving the project two months. His ultimate goal is to get prices back down to the $1.39 range where they were in December. Meanwhile, Cockerham says he’ll take all the cheap gas tips anyone has to offer. He’s at