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    Service Stations Struggling

    Hypermarketers putting pressure on small operators and independent owners.

    BEDFORD, Texas -- While gas stations on three of the corners in Bedford, Texas have customers filling up, a fourth sits empty. And if you drive up for gas at a station at Central Drive and Pipeline Road in Bedford, all you will see on all four corners are boarded windows.It's a trend seen across the United States, particularly in Texas, according to the Dallas Star-Telegram.. "Texas has been a tough place to be a gasoline marketer for the past few years." said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey, which tracks wholesale and retail gas prices and trends.Texas, which is considered a testing area for convenience store ideas, has seen many gas stations turn off the coffee machines and lock the doors. New competition, corporate mergers, fluctuating oil prices and environmental regulations have made the seemingly invincible industry begin to question its future.Nationwide, the number of gasoline stations has been declining for several years, Kloza said. About five years ago, the United States had more than 200,000 stations. Now, fewer than 185,000 exist, he said."The dealers are wondering if there is a future for a traditional service station," said Roy Littlefield, executive director of Service Station Dealers of America. "Those questions are scaring dealers right now."Much of the industry blames big-box stores such as Wal-Mart as well as supermarkets and other stores that have begun selling gasoline at reduced prices. Unlike service stations, which need to make a profit from the gas they sell, alternative gasoline retailers use it to lure customers into their stores."The companies are not selling to make a profit," Littlefield said. "All Wal-Mart would have to do is sell the gas for what they purchased it for, and they would put us all out of business."Wal-Mart customers have responded to the convenience and the value offered by the 543 locations nationwide that are selling gasoline, including stores in Arlington, Lewisville and Fort Worth, the report said. The company disputes that it is going after the small gas station's customers."We are not in business to put anyone out of business," Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said. "We are going to offer gasoline at the lowest possible prices simply because on the side of our building it says, 'We sell for less.'"But smaller family-owned operations are suffering. The concern is that when competition dries up, gasoline prices would soar. Even big players such as Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. are being affected by companies such as Wal-Mart.ExxonMobil has 16,000 stations nationwide, but 11,000 of them are independently owned. "It is a very competitive market, and it is the independent businessmen and women who are being affected," ExxonMobil spokeswoman Jeannie Miller said.

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