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Pay-at-pump hurting sales inside stores

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SAVANNAH, Ga. — Even with his tank running low, Steve Houghtaling refuses to stop for gas anyplace that takes much longer than a NASCAR pitstop.

"It's easy and it's fast," he says, swiping his credit card at a Shell station pump along I-95 that was bustling with traffic before the Fourth of July holiday. "In fact, I will make sure I know where the gas pumps are where I can do this."

With nearly two-thirds of American convenience stores allowing customers to pay at the pump, gassing-and-going has never been easier. No lines. No cash. No need to go inside the store at all.

For hurried drivers like Houghtaling, that means no soda. No coffee. No candy bars and no newspapers.

The accelerated pace of refueling could be putting a crimp in convenience stores' sales of impulse items. Last year, the industry reported profits dropped 4.1 percent to $4.6 billion before taxes, their first decline since 1996.

While sales of bottled and canned sodas, chips, candy and gum increased slightly, the nation's 120,000 stores reported sagging sales of other items — from fountain drinks and milk to batteries and adult magazines.

Jackie Sommers, part-owner of 50 stores in the Savannah area, said paying at the pump has hurt his bottom line.

"In-store business drops off by 15 percent," Sommers said.

The proliferation of pay-at-the-pump technology took off within the last six years. In 1995, only 17 percent of convenience stores offered them, compared with 65 percent in 2000.

The National Association of Convenience Stores blames lower profits on soaring prices for gasoline and cigarettes, the industry's two top-selling items. While stores sell more gas than anything, it also yields some of the lowest profits.