High-Priced Full-Service Fills a Niche

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High-Priced Full-Service Fills a Niche

WASHINGTON -- The woman in the shiny black Mazda Miata sports car wheeled into the full-service line at the Langley Exxon station near Central Intelligence Agency headquarters the other day and ordered a fill-up of regular gas, despite the $2.60-per-gallon price. She was in a hurry and full service was what she wanted. Her bill was $22.10 for 8.5 gallons, but she was quickly on her way again and never had to get out of her car as an attendant filled her tank, washed the windshield and checked the tire pressure.

And why did she pay 80 cents more per gallon -- a total of $6.80 more -- than if she had pumped the gas herself? "Because I'm lazy and because I'm all dressed up," the Energy Department statistician, who otherwise declined to identify herself as she headed for home after work told The Washington Post. "Sometimes when I'm not dressed up, I'll pump it myself. But I'm willing to pay a little more. If I had a bigger car maybe I wouldn't, but this car doesn't take much gas."

The woman's purchase and Langley Exxon's full-service line are dwindling phenomena on the American retail front, something akin to dairies offering to deliver quarts of milk to your back porch or doctors making house calls. In the Washington area, only a tiny fraction of gas stations, perhaps 1 percent or fewer of the hundreds of stations in the region, still offer a full-service line.

"Full-serve is a dinosaur," said Josef Svetska, owner of McLean Mobil, who nonetheless continues to staff a full-serve line throughout the week. Svetska has 12 to 15 customers a day willing to pay $2.65 a gallon for regular gas, $1.06 more than self-serve for the same gas, substantially higher than the usual 30-to-40-cents-a-gallon markup for full-serve in the Washington area. Svetska's station sells about 200 gallons of full-serve gas a day, he said.

"It's mostly for people in a hurry, or on company credit cards, or embassy people," Svetska said of his full-serve customers. "It's wives of corporate officials. They're going to receptions. They're dressed up" and do not want to mess with a dirty gas pump handle.

"We don't hide" the price, he said. "It's right there on the pump. We offer it because the customers want it."

But Svetska said, his costs for staffing the full-serve line, including $10.50 an hour pay for full-serve attendants, time-and-a-half overtime pay and other benefits, are high enough so that his full-serve line yields the same 7-cents-a-gallon profit as his self-serve lines.

Paul Fiore, director of government affairs for the 1,200-member Washington-Maryland-Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said stations that offer full-serve are mostly in "the higher demographic economic group and they have customers willing to pay for it. They're well off, they can afford it," he said of the full-service gas patrons. "They like our service."

Raman Sethi, owner of the Langley Exxon, said he sells about 500 gallons of full-serve gas daily, out of a total of 4,000. "There's a lot of rich people here that don't want to get out of their car." Moreover, he concluded, "It will not go away."