How low fuel prices are helping 6 small businesses

A landscaping company is considering expanding its workforce. A moving company has lowered rates. And a funeral home is charging less to transport family members.

With gasoline selling for less than $3 a gallon for the first time in four years, Charlotte-area small businesses say they’re feeling the benefits. The average price for a gallon of regular stood at $2.69 in Charlotte on Friday, a drop of 62 cents in a year, according to AAA Carolinas.

For small-business owners, especially those who rely on fleets of vehicles, that translates into significant savings. A poll for the National Federation of Independent Business showed energy costs are among the top three expenses for about a third of small businesses. Companies can apply those fuel savings to personnel or equipment costs, or pass savings to customers.

Why are prices so low? Increased domestic energy production, combined with OPEC’s decision not to lower production targets, has increased oil supplies at a time when demand around the world is tepid.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service, expects oil prices to fall by another $5 or $10 a barrel before stopping. “It’s that kind of rout,” he told the Associated Press.

Here’s how the lower prices have affected six types of small businesses in Charlotte:

Moving company: Lower rates

Falling gas costs have saved Two Men & A Truck, a moving company with offices in Charlotte and Rock Hill, significantly on fuel costs for its 24 trucks, said franchisee Tripp Moore.

A year ago, the moving company was spending 5.8 percent of its overall revenue on fuel in Charlotte, Moore said. Now, it’s spending about 4.6 percent.

“I think it’s a benefit not only to us, but to our bottom line,” he said.

He hopes to direct some of the savings toward fleet maintenance and possibly toward bonuses for movers. The company also has passed savings on to customers by dropping hourly rates by $4, he said.

Food trucks: Almost ‘one free day’

Kelli Crisan considers herself one of the first food truck vendors to sell in Charlotte. In May 2011, she opened Roaming Fork “Bistro on Wheels,” where she and her staff cook “porky sandwiches,” “ooey gooey” grilled cheese on sourdough and a “Hannah Montana MoJo.”

Usually, keeping the truck’s electricity on and water running for two lunch shifts with a gas-powered generator costs about $20. Since prices have dropped, she has been using $14 for three shifts.

“It almost gives us one free day” of not buying gas, Crisan said.

Those savings, she said, will help carry her through the colder months, when business is slower.

“January, it’s usually freezing, and February, we’re starting to thaw, and by March, we’re back in action … there’s a significant downtime,” she said. “Every little bit helps, especially when you’re a small-business owner.”

Landscaper: More jobs?

It takes Metro Greenscape, a landscaping service that works in Charlotte-area neighborhoods, about $1,700 each week to fuel 30 fleet vehicles and 20 pieces of equipment, said Darin Brockelbank, company owner and founder.

With fuel prices falling, Brockelbank said his company is able to save about $500 weekly that he plans to re-invest in the company. That, in turn, could help other local businesses, he said. For instance, he’s considering using a local vendor to provide his employees with new jackets bearing the company logo.

What’s more, Brockelbank said he’s thinking of hiring new employees.

“In our business, there’s no pitfalls if the price of fuel goes down,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine one.”

Trucking company: Possible raises

While the price of regular gas continues to fall, diesel fuel also has decreased on average by 21 cents from last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The decline has allowed Mike Oehler Trucking to pay about $3.30 a gallon for diesel – about $5,000 to $6,000 to fill 10 trucks every four days, said Jason Oehler, who runs the company with his brother and father. When prices were higher, they spent about $3.60 a gallon.

Oehler said he’s hoping to use the savings to keep his fleet up-to-par and give his 10 employees a raise.

“Anything you can save, you can pass along to employees,” he said. “They’re a part of this, too.”

Funeral home: Lower rates

Families that hire Ellington Funeral Services are paying less for the limo ride from their homes, said Derek Hunter, senior funeral director and embalmer.

When gas prices peaked at $4 a gallon, the East Morehead Street funeral home spent $75 to $80 to fill up each of four service vehicles and the car that transports family members to and from their homes the day of the funeral, he said.

Now that prices are lower, employees spend $30 to $45 to fill up each of the cars, Hunter said. He has passed the savings to customers by trimming a few dollars off the fee for the limo ride. That cost varies depending on distance, but in general the limo ride costs around $175, he said.

Aside from the service and assisting family, he said the funeral home is responsible for transporting flowers, serving the family with legal documents, such as a death certificate, and then delivering that certificate to the county courthouse and doctors.

“We do a lot of driving,” Hunter said. “A lot more than the public thinks.”

Flower shop: Savings and skepticism

Joel Houston, owner of Flowers Plus in uptown, said he’s no longer spending $80 a week to fill up the minivan employees use to make deliveries. Now it takes, on average, $55.

That’s a significant savings for Houston, but he’s still a bit skeptical about the lowered prices. He has been in this business a long time, he said, and has seen gas prices ebb and flow.

He expects them to soar again.

“It’s just been a relief,” he said. The Associated Press contributed.

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