Full-Service Gas Stations Running on Fumes

October 23, 2010
Rob O'Flanagan, Mercury staff

GUELPH - There are still a few gas jockeys out there, pumping petrol, working a squeegee and plunging a dipstick, but they are a dying breed.

In their heyday, they dressed in uniforms, wore caps with the company crest, and always hustled when a car pulled up to the pumps. They assumed you wanted the works - fill 'er up, check the oil, wash the windows. Some even checked your tire pressure.

No more. The full-service gas station is rapidly vanishing from the petroleum marketing landscape. A victim of cost-cutting by major oil companies, they have been replaced by strictly self-service stations were the motorist does it all, and where there is often only one person working behind the counter.

Self-serve is a more cost-efficient way to do business for such major oil companies as Shell and Suncor. Spokespersons from both giant companies said that self-serve stations reduce labour costs and are the preferred choice for consumers. The vast majority of motorists will choose cheap gas over more expensive petrol pumped by a gas jockey, they insist.

But not all motorists want to, or are able to, pump their own gas.

"I get my gas at Norm's Esso," said motorist Bonnie Ventresca, speaking of a long-standing full-service station on the corner of Surrey Street East and Wyndham Street in downtown Guelph. "I just find they are friendly. We chit-chat. You get a 'Good morning, how's your day going?' It's the same reason I like going to a teller at the bank. I like to talk to people - I don't like talking to machines."

Judy Fortier and her brother Brian Flewelling own and operate Norm's, a service station that's been around since the 1930s, and which their dad purchased in 1969. The kids took it over.

"We're a dying breed," said Fortier on a busy afternoon. Vehicles - including a number of Guelph Police vehicles - were getting fill-ups at the pumps, while other motorists were have vehicles repaired. The place was humming with activity despite the gauntlet of construction work surrounding it, and the fact it has no variety store like most new self-serve stations.

"There's been a few full-service stations close in the past month or so, and we've been getting a lot of phone calls from people asking if we are a full-service station," said Fortier. "These would be the older generation, or just someone with hand problems, like arthritis."

Fortier estimates there are only three or four full-service stations left in Guelph.

"We get a special appreciation from our customers," she added. "Even with the construction, that makes it hard to get to us right at the moment, people make the effort to get to us because they know they are going to get that full service. And our guys clean the windows and check the oil, which a lot of people don't even know how to do."

Rita Green scoured Guelph's full slate of gas stations this week, calling each one to find out which offer full service. She found local evidence of the trend that is sweeping the country: The full-service gas station is going the way of the Studebaker.

"I found four in total that still offer full service," said Green, who is concerned that the growing senior population and the disabled in the city will have an increasingly difficult time finding a station that will pump their gas. Local advocates for the elderly and disabled agree that the trend away from full service is causing major problems for the frail and disabled.

"I'm concerned about disabled people, and older people who have to get out of their car, like in the winter time when it's going to be slippery," said Green, 73. "And there are people with arthritis who can't turn the gas cap to get the pump in. There are a number of people who are in wheelchairs that drive, and I wonder how they are going to cope."

Norm's Esso, Pioneer Petroleum on Wellington Street West, the Cango station on Elizabeth Street, and Frank's, also on Elizabeth, are among the full-service stations remaining in the city.

Mehbub Kharodia, owner-operator of the Cango, said maintaining full service "is still good for the old people." He is very busy, particularly in the mornings.

Joanne Young Evans, executive director of Guelph Independent Living, said the agency has a number of clients who drive their own vehicles. They require full-service gas stations, or they have to have someone accompany them when they fill up.

"Often times, they are driving on their own, so it is becoming very difficult for them," Young Evans said. "It means they are driving and driving to actually find a full-service station that can actually help them fill their vehicle."

She said a simple thing like gassing up can become a major inconvenience for people with a disability, because often they have to find someone to come with them to the station.

"You want to be as independent as possible, and what this is doing is taking away independence from people who drive and are in wheelchairs," she added.

"It's not fair. For those of us who are more able-bodied and can get in and out of our vehicle, it's wonderful. You zip in and you zip out. But for those who have physical disabilities, it's really becoming a problem."

Suncor spokesperson Jason Vaillant said it is true that full-service offerings are decreasing. The cost of providing full service has steadily increased in comparison to a self-serve option, and self serve has become the dominant demand from consumers who are less willing to pay more for full service, he explained.

"That's largely related to the increasingly competitive marketplace," he said. "It's more and more difficult for us to sustain our full-service stations. Certainly, being competitive is important to us, and certainly, the marketplace is just becoming more and more competitive all the time."

Suncor, owner of Petro-Canada, is one of Canada's largest companies. It had net second quarter 2010 earnings of $480 million. The company is eager to maintain and grow its market share, Vaillant said, and while it is always concerned about business costs, it wants to balance those concerns with "different offerings for different types of consumers."

Petro-Canada has a limited number of what are called split-serve stations that offer both self-service and full-service options. Vaillant said drivers with a disabled permit can receive full-service at self-serve prices. There is also a call-ahead option for those who can't pump their own gas, but only stations with "enough people on the ground" can accommodate them.

"We're trying as best we can to cover off all the different circumstances, and these are a few of the ways we are doing that," he said.

Shell spokesperson Jeff Gabert told much the same story. He said the gasoline business is very competitive at the retail level, and because of that, competition, costs and pricing are very important to consumers.

The market, he said, dictates the kind and level of service that can be provided. The majority of motorists aren't willing to pay extra for full service, he said, and for the most part, people are happy with self service.

"People want price more than they want full service," Gabert said. "That said, it's become a more difficult environment for those who need full service. At the same time, organizations like Shell are doing everything we can to assist those people and give them full service wherever possible."

Self-serve sites sometimes have more than one employee, and at those times, employees are instructed to give full service to anyone who needs it. Local stations are encouraged to get to know customers who need full service and let them know when staff is available to provide it. But it is up to the person who needs the service to go in and identify themselves as someone who has special needs, Gabert indicated.

"It's the law in Ontario that if there's only one person at the site, they can't basically lock up the store and come out and do this service and go back," Gabert said.

"It's one of those things where we've tried to do as much as possible in the business environment we are in to accommodate people that need full service," he said, adding that costs go up significantly when there is an extra person on staff pumping gas.

"I think it's all about money," said Rita Green. "It really annoys me because the fuel costs so much more and they're getting all these profits, and then they are giving you less service."

Lynne Briggs, manager of senior services with the Guelph Wellington Seniors Association, expects the disappearance of full-service gas stations to become a bigger concern as the population ages.

"I suspect that given our aging population, and thus perhaps more disability, it will become an issue in our smaller city," she said. She has heard no complaints as of yet on the issue from members of the association.

"Boomers are now turning 65, and we are going to have a twofold increase in the number of seniors in our city," she added. "And I think the ability to pump your own gas may become compromised for some segment of older adults."

Young Evans said oil companies appear not to be giving enough consideration to people with disabilities as they move to eliminate full-service stations.

"If we can get the Members of Parliament dealing with Petro-Canada, maybe we could start there in doing some advocacy and lobbying work," she said. "The whole transportation industry is ignoring people with disabilities."

roflanagan@guelphmercury.com

Reproduced from http://news.guelphmercury.com/News/Local/article/708566

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