Gas stations in Germany face stiff competition. The Shell company is upping the stakes by bringing the 1950s-style gas station attendant back to life.
Shell wants modern-day gas attendants to woo customers
Back in the good ol' days, you could pull into a gas station and three spiffy attendants would pop out from behind the cashier's counter, clean your windows and polish your fenders whilst filling your tank. If you needed your tire pressure or oil checked, no problem -- it was all part of the service. You'd almost look forward to going for a Sunday afternoon fill-up.
That all changed in the 1970s. Along with higher prices and longer lines, customers were forced to grab the nozzle and pump their own gas. In the disco age, the only place you'd encounter an attendant was behind the cash register.
But the times are a-changin' again. Gas giant Shell now says it will hire gas-pump attendants at 720 stations throughout Germany. The service will include filling up the tank as well as checking oil, tire pressure and windshield fluid, said Shell spokesperson Matthias von Glischinski-Kurc.
A fringe benefit for people on the move
Shell said it made the decision due to the tough competition on the German market. Germany currently has about 15,000 fueling stations nationwide, but that number has been on the decline for a long time. According to the German Association of Gas Station Owners, about 200 stations close each year. The reason: Turnover from gas sales has been decreasing over the years, while profit margins in Germany are some of the lowest in Europe.
That is why BP/Aral, following a slash of 2,500 jobs last year, recently said it would downsize even more. Competitor Shell is trying hard to buck the trend and increase its market share by providing the benefits of gas station attendants.
"A survey we commissioned not long ago showed that the service is particularly attractive to businesspeople, women and older drivers," said Glischinski-Kurc. "That was also clearly confirmed by a pilot study we did over several months at 25 different stations across Germany."
Putting on a happy face
A Shell station in the Stellingen district of Hamburg is one of the 25 pilot stations. Most customers there have been grateful for the full-service option. "It's a new service and I think it's fine," one customer said. "As long as it doesn't cost extra, then it's great," said another.
But not everybody can sit tight and let others do the pumping. "Some customers tell us not to even go near their cars," said attendant Oktay Yazici. "They just start yelling their heads off. But our motto is always: 'Just keep smiling!'"
Whether or not the majority of German customers will actually accept the service is the big question. Aral tried a similar tactic several years ago, but could no longer cover the costs. Now, Shell says customers can decide if they want the service or not. If they do, they can pull into a special full-serve lane, and can also decide whether or not to pay the 1 euro ($1.20) surcharge. Shell is also confident it will sell more motor oil and windshield wiper fluid with the new concept.
But the Association of Gas Station Owners is skeptical about whether customers will dole out their money for full-serve. Germans are notorious penny pinchers -- a trend that has increased over the past few years. So it's unlikely that the full-service offered by Shell will change their reluctance to fill 'er up in times of high prices for gasoline and diesel.
Way back in the golden, olden days, motorists used to buy their fuel in pharmacies. Given the current high prices, you'd be tempted to think that gas is once again under the lock and key of the apothecary.