$5 gas could become sign of the times

May 29, 2008

Drivers are still wincing from their brush with $4 gas this month, but some station operators already are getting ready in case prices rise to $5 per gallon.

A company that makes gas station signs has begun to field orders for plastic signs with the number "5" printed on them.

Operators, who just months ago submitted a flurry of orders for the number "4," don't want to be caught without the number "5" if prices continue rising, said Susie Alofaituli, who owns Quality Image Inc. in Paramount, Calif.

Quality Image serves station operators throughout the country, including Indiana. However, it wasn't immediately clear if any of the orders for the "5" signs were from Indiana.

The price of regular unleaded in the Indianapolis area averaged $3.96 per gallon today, according to AAA. The record average was $3.99 set May 24, although some stations edged above $4.

Earlier this month, a number of stations in northwestern Indiana charged above $4.

Gas is still cheap in the Indianapolis area compared to some cities. In San Francisco, the average is $4.18 today, and in Hartford, Conn., $4.21.

Station operators with digital signs simply change the price electronically. Their signs have potential to read $9.99.

ut operators who manually replace the individual plastic "changeable copy" rely on having the correct numbers available.

ndividual pieces printed with "4" had to be ordered this year, and now operators will need "5's" if prices climb. Depending on color, thickness of the plastic and other factors, an individual number can cost anywhere from $1.70 to $50, and require several days to arrive after an order is placed.

A spot check of local sign companies shows little if any interest in ordering "4's."

Todd Whitehead, an owner of Whitehead Signs, said he mainly sees signs ordered to replace those blown away by winds. However, he said orders for "4's" could become common if prices stay strong.

Rick Eberle, a salesman at Hutchison Signs & Electrical Co., remembers station operators painting the number "1" on their signs in the 1970s after gas rose above the then-stratospheric price of $1.

Like Whitehead, Eberle said local operators have shown virtually no interest in adding "4's."

Alofaituli, the California sign maker, said that for the sake of people's pocketbooks, she hopes prices don't go higher.

Yet, it's hard for her to conceal her glee over the orders for bigger numbers.

"I just hope it doesn't quit," Alofaituli said with a laugh. "It will keep me busy."

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