Petrol, Postage and Pasties: Don't Panic at the pumps

Some very strange figures have been published by the Retail Motor Industry (RMI) about the increase in sales of fuel because of the panic buying earlier this week.  Yesterday (Friday 30 March 2012) the RMI released sales figures for the change in daily sales, looking at the previous day (Thursday 29 March 2012) compared with the average for the previous week.  Here they are:

Fuel Volume - Uplift Against Previous Week
Thursday 29/03 
Diesel                  +76.8%
Unleaded             +171.8%
Super Diesel       +375.9%
Super Unleaded  +358.1% 

Leaving aside my refusal to place any credence on the third and fourth significant digits in the statistics, there are several oddities here. 

First, why the variation between fuel types?  A possible reason for the difference between diesel and unleaded is that diesel is more often found in vans and commercial vehicles, and perhaps(?) professional drivers haven't panicked. 

Second, why the differences between "ordinary" and "super"?  One might think that "super" fuels are a smaller part of the market, and that measurement errors account for the change -- but in a market of hundreds of thousands of litres per day then the changes are really going to be significant and not within measurement error.  It would be interesting to see an analysis of what type of driver routinely buys "Super" fuel.  My hunch -- and it is only a hunch -- is that one contributing factor to those massive increases could be because there have been some drivers who normally purchase "ordinary" fuel at a supermarket who have changed to an independent filling station which sells "super" fuel.  And perhaps once there, people have bought whatever they could. 

Third, given these figures, why has the "uplift" for diesel and super diesel not been similar to the "uplift" for unleaded and super unleaded?  There is some deep psychology here which would repay study!

Finally, the RMI press release (here) talks about the supply chain.
... the pinch point in the supply chain remains the movement of fuel from terminal to forecourt.

The average retail fuel usage is near to 100 Million litres every day. This would require 2300 tankers to replenish the petrol stations assuming the tanker has a 44,000 litre capacity.

Figures for Thursday 29 March suggest that the number of tanker movements required will be nearly double; taking into account back log from earlier in the week. The UK haulage industry does not have that capacity.

The good news for today (Saturday 31 March) is that demand is more or less back to normal.  The bad news is that my three questions about the figures are not answered.

There is scope here for some O.R. model-building.  Collect some more data about sales, but be more specific about the location of sales.  Collect the data day by day and also note where filling stations ran out of fuel.  With these figures, and some interviews, you could start to build a model to advise fuel companies about their priorities when there are problems in the supply chain. 

But, of course, there is yet another O.R. aspect to the panic effect.  Drivers are playing a complex game with the supply network when they decide that their vehicle must have enough fuel and the network is under stress.  So, if the result of the model for the fuel company is implements, then the game will change and consumer behaviour will change as well. 


  1. Regarding the super fuels, it may also be that drivers are stopping at stations that sell all grades, finding them sold out of regular unleaded (due to panic buying), and deciding to top off with super rather than risk not finding regular elsewhere.

  2. I agree with paul in that but the question is look at the % of increase in each category the normal diesel is only +76.8% and super is +358.1%, if diesel is sold out then its percentage should be more than this say of 500% then only it will be sold out.. i think now days people are thinking of using high quality fuels for longivity of their vehicles.

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  3. If not many people ordinarily buy super grades, then there is probably enough spare capacity in a station's storage tank to handle a large increase. Here's at least the vast majority of consumers buy regular grade. Assuming weekly or biweekly reimbursements, there would nor be sufficient on-hand inventory to cover a large (triple digit) percentage increase in sales.


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