Answer Man: Gas stations still use an old gimmick

News-DemocratNovember 13, 2013 

Why are gas prices always priced with nine-tenths at the end? Wouldn't it be simpler and easier for everybody if they just rounded it up to the nearest cent? -- T.N., of Edwardsville

To borrow a time-honored line from tennis pro John McEnroe, you cannot be serious, can you?

Come on, man, you're talking about doing away with one of the most popular marketing gimmicks in history. Look or listen to almost any advertisement and what do you see or hear? Salad dressing at $1.99. Coats at $69.99. Cars at $9,999.

Don't those prices just want to make you run out and fill your shopping carts, closets and garages? That's what marketers have always thought. Even though your brain knows it's ridiculous, your heart is still joyous that you snatched up that used Yugo for less than $10,000.

Well, apparently decades ago, gas stations thought the same idea could tease people into their stores as opposed to the PDQ Gas, Milk and Computer Mart across the street. At least, that's the only explanation oil companies now can find for the odd pricing.

You have to remember that when gas was only a few cents a gallon, a tenth or two difference might, indeed, be the Shell game that influenced a customer's decision. Mobil, for example, says it has a photo in its file of a station offering gas for 14 1/2 cents a gallon in 1914.

The push to price by tenths is thought to have started sometime during the Depression. It was a time when gas production far outstripped demand as an estimated 2.6 million cars were parked, cutting fuel consumption by a billion gallons per year in 1932 and 1933. Plummeting sales forced station owners to take drastic measures to lure drivers to their pumps.

"It was at that time that premiums such as candy, cigarettes, ash trays, dolls and countless other giveaway items made their appearance," Mobil's C.F. Helvie told David Feldman for his book "Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise?" "In such a competitive climate, it seems reasonable to assume that the gasoline marketers of the day would have been attracted to the concept of fractional pricing."

The idea received a big boost with the introduction of mechanical pumps that could calculate such otherwise difficult-to-figure prices. Now, of course, people don't even bat an eyelash over a tenth of a cent. But think about it -- wasn't seeing $3.999 a few weeks ago far less shocking than $4.00 would have been? And, so, the tradition lives on.

I have an old recipe for cooked cheese that calls for dry curd. It looks like cottage cheese without the liquid substance, but I can't find it anywhere. Also, I can't seem to find a product called Smetina (made by Raskas Dairy Co., now out of business) but was hoping someone else made it. It also seems that smooth cottage cheese is nowhere to be found. Are these products still available? -- CJS, of Mascoutah

If two out of three ain't bad, I suppose one out of three ain't gonna be good, but here's the rundown:

Smetina was a thick sour cream (called smetana) popular in Central and Eastern Europe. It was a registered trademark of the Raskas Dairy Co., of St. Louis, so when Schreiber Foods of Green Bay, Wis., bought Raskas, they acquired the trademark.

However, Schreiber spokesman Andrew Tobish says his company never made Smetina and, since they hold the rights, nobody else likely does, either. But if you send me an address, I will send you a recipe that our food editor, Suzanne Boyle, has found to make your own smetana.

As a youngster, I remember my mom buying smooth cottage cheese for me, because I didn't like those yucky curds, big or small. Unfortunately, I cannot find a store that would help me relive those days of yore, so I feel your pain. Maybe a reader can help ...

Finally, the good news: You'll have to go far out of your way, but you can find dry curd cottage cheese -- also known as farmer's cheese -- at Whole Foods at 1160 Town and Country Crossing in Town and Country, Mo., (636-527-1160). You also can find it at Amazon.com and possibly at some Walmart stores.

You also might try this tip from the Cheesekeeper in Belleville: Take regular cottage cheese and strain it through a strainer or cheesecloth for a day or two in the refrigerator. You also might ask for farmer's cheese at farmers markets and specialty stores -- or, again, wait until some alert reader calls.

Today's trivia

According to many researchers, in what city did the first gas station open?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: In 1892 (or 1894, depending on the story) Paul Hubbard had a problem. He was the quarterback for Gallaudet University, a school for the hearing impaired in Washington, D.C. But eventually he realized that when he used sign language out in the open to call the next play, the opposing team could learn of his plans, too. So, he called his players into a tight circle to give the play -- and the modern football huddle was born. By the way, Gallaudet was established in 1864 as the National Deaf-Mute College by an act of Congress that was signed by Abraham Lincoln. Its name was officially changed to Gallaudet in 1954.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-236-2465.

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