Commentary: One More Full-Service Gas Station Closes, For Good

October 5, 2010

The story was from the Chippewa Herald in Wisconsin, but it could have been from Baltimore, Maryland, or San Mateo, California, or maybe Lawton, Oklahoma. The story line would be similar--another full-service gas station has gone the way of the eight-track tape deck to certain small-business oblivion.

Larry Wiltrout is looking for a job. You see, nobody told him that those elderly and disabled customers for whom he pumped gas didn’t represent enough critical mass to substantiate a niche market that could sustain a sufficient bottom line. And he never did conform to an updated business model for marketing gasoline. He oddly thought that auto repairs went with gasoline better than with Twinkies, coffee and sandwiches ordered through a touchscreen.

So when he pumped his tanks dry recently in preparation for the closing of the station where he has worked since the 1970s, and has owned for the last ten years, it was evidence that in today’s business environment price and technology will overwhelm personal service every time.

I know people like Mr. Wiltrout very well and they usually make a choice to run a business that becomes part of their identity. Their business model centers around their work product and the ability to do a good job and be rewarded accordingly. Today that is rarely enough as consumers look for the purchasing amenities that they are familiar with, whether it be a self-serve check-out at the supermarket or an ATM machine at the bank.

Commenting about the auto repair operation that kept his business afloat for many years, Mr. Wiltrout said, “That dried up, too. Everybody likes to go out to Wal-Mart.” This is more of a comment on what’s available to the consumer than a critique of his ability as an auto technician or business owner. As the advertising gurus know, the consumer is a creature of habit, so when the available choices are limited, the familiar will usually prevail.

Mr. Wiltrout is hoping to sell the property his business occupies. The building dates back to the 1940s and at one time it had an ice house. The dispensers (previously called pumps) use mechanical dials to meter the gas instead of digital technology. There’s a term that those customers over at Wal-Mart would use to describe the operation–“old school.”

I’ve just never figured out if that is a derogatory remark or one indicating respect.

[Chippewa Herald]    

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