Wisdom of 'Old Reliable' and Parker

By  Paul Reuter, Chairman emeritus and contributing editor

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It is humbling that Encyclopaedia Britannica, those stately volumes of thought and fact, is halting its print edition after 244 years.

In an era of instant messages and the newest G-speed cellphone, Encyclopaedia Britannica, born before the birth of our nation, represented something very different from today’s multitasking attention span.

How many of us either owned a set of Britannica at home (an expensive proposition) or, more likely, went to the local library to start our research paper with the old reliable?

While Britannica lives online, its print demise offers a message about how much society has changed—for good and not so good—over just the past decade.

Alfred B. Doblin, editorial page editor of the Bergen Record in New Jersey, recently offered the following observation when comparing Britannica and Wikipedia:

“Today we have Wikipedia, a timely, user-edited research crutch. It may more often than not be accurate, but there is so much stuff that is not important in it to devalue its overall worth ...

“Being an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica wasn’t a vanity project. The individuals cited in the Encyclopaedia Britannica had done something extraordinary.”

In other words, if you want to look up a local town council, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in Wikipedia, even though the local officials may have done nothing memorable. Whereas if you were in Britannica—whether you’re the Biblical Moses or late-21st-century innovator Steve Jobs—you had to have earned it. Doblin offers a bigger message: Is everyone entitled to the same platform? Does a politician have equal standing with a heart surgeon when talking about medical procedures? Does a patron carry equal credibility when talking taste with a French chef? We live with what he describes as an oxymoron: instant analysis. Analysis requires research, thought, perspective and a deep understanding of the subject on which you’re commenting. What we mostly have today is instant reaction. I hear something, perhaps check out a couple of websites, and then form my opinion. That is not analysis or analytical thinking. This distinction is important not only on an intellectual level but also on a very practical business front. If you haven’t noticed (of course you have), gas prices are climbing. And as I write this column, I’m seeing prices topping $4 a gallon at some stations.

Instant reaction says to blame the local station for being greedy and exploiting global uncertainty into local opportunity. Then there is real analysis. And for that we owe a great debt to our friend Greg Parker, owner and CEO of The Parker Cos. Greg wrote a guest opinion in his local newspaper, the Savannah Morning News, in which he observed, “An informed consumer is an empowered consumer.”

 Here is the start of Parker’s column:

“A customer approached me earlier this week at a Parker’s store, frustrated, to say the least. ‘I guess you’re going to make tons of money off the rising gas prices,’ she fumed.

“Hardly. Fuels retailing is a penny business. I explained to her that, averaged over the course of a year, convenience stores only earn 2 to 4 cents profit on every gallon of gas that they sell. But when prices are climbing, we make even less—or even briefly lose money on every gallon we sell—because of competitive pressures.

“In the course of our conversation, I realized that the general public is largely in the dark when it comes to the real reasons behind rising gas prices in America. A recent consumer study by NACS found that American consumers think retailers make 48 cents profit for every gallon of gas they sell.

“The reality is far bleaker. Plus, the confusion over what’s driving up prices makes consumers’ pain at the pump even greater.”

Greg went on to explain the fundamentals behind retail fuel prices. You can read the entire column on our website at www.cspnet.com/gaspriceGP.

What Encyclopaedia Britannica has done for three centuries and what Greg Parker did in his column was educate the public and make us all the wiser.

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