Gasoline and market power

Having just visited New Jersey, I am reminded once again that service stations in New Jersey are full service only. That’s right, self-serve is against the law. My wife wonders what a public choice explanation could possibly be, I postulated a kind of “full employment act” for the undereducated, the public rhetoric once claimed that without full-service stations the supply of auto repairman would dry up, although that hardly seems plausible. Here is a summary of a recent New Jersey debate, the piece notes that NJ gas prices are not especially high.

The real puzzle, for me, is precisely that full-service gasoline in New Jersey is typically no more expensive than the typical self-service prices in Virginia. (I am writing from a Kinko’s in Manhattan and don’t have the exact numbers handy.) Yet full-service gas in Virginia is much more expensive than self-service in Virginia, often thirty, forty, or fifty cents a gallon more, at least.

You might that the marginal cost of providing service explains this differential, but then why is full-service gas in New Jersey so cheap? More likely, you have gas stations in Virginia, and elsewhere, practicing a common price discrimination, here is some empirical support for such a model. In other words, the stations believe that those who purchase full-service gas are simply willing to pay much more. Such price discrimination, of course, is impossible in a perfectly competitive market. You would think, surely, that the retail gasoline market is very competitive. The product is relatively homogeneous and there are many different service stations in developed regions. Yet it does not appear to behave like a competitive market, and that is the source of my puzzle. Here is a good piece on the use of priceline.com, and how it serves price discrimination, including in the gasoline market.

Here are Capitalistchicks complaining about full-service requirements in Portland, where they claim that gas prices are especially high, they consider public choice arguments as well.

The final lesson?: You have to look really hard to find a truly competitive market, in the sense defined by the economist’s notion of perfect competition.

Addendum: Gary Leff relates how priceline.com pulled out of the gas market several years ago. And here are gas taxes by state, though they do not explain the observed price gaps in this case, thanks to David Hartley for the tip.