What Happened to the Full-Service Gas Station?

By Beacon Staff

Before I get into that, I should introduce myself and this column.

I’m Mark Riffey, and among other things, I teach small business owners seven strategies to get more clients, be more productive and be more profitable. You can learn more about me at www.markriffey.com.

WARNING: I’m sure I’ll say something that will annoy you from time to time. Like your mom or dad said when they taught you a life lesson: “It’s for your own good and someday, you’ll thank me.”

Back to the gas stations. Do they no longer do those things because you don’t want them to?

I seriously doubt it.

Be honest with me. Do you look forward to pumping gas at 7:15 a.m. on a crisp, 3-degree December morning as a “gentle” 25 mph wind is blowing out of the canyon? Yeah, sure you do.

Let’s look at gas stations from two different eras:

Years ago: You drive into a gas station. A station attendant would come out, ask what kind of gas you want and how much you want, and start the pump. While fuel is pumping into your tank, they’d wash your windshield, clean off your side mirrors, wipe off your headlights and tail lights, check your oil level, check your transmission fluid level, and check the air pressure in your tires. While all that was going on, it wasn’t unusual for them to have a brief, friendly conversation with you.

Today: You pump your own gas, wash your own windshield if there’s any fluid buckets and squeegees (or you ignore it), and you probably don’t worry about the oil or the tires. Before you leave, you pay at the pump without any interaction with a person, or you exchange thoughtful grunts with someone in a glorified phone booth made from bulletproof glass as they take your payment through a security drawer.

If given the choice, you’d probably still like the “old” gas station experience. Despite this, you would have to look long and hard to find a station that does these things.

Why? Because they’ve allowed themselves to become the most dangerous thing a business can become: a commodity.

Want a bigger example of how risky commodities can be? Look at Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

Its raw materials (alumina, coke and electric power) are commodities. Someone else controls the price. Its product is also a commodity. Someone else controls the price.

CFAC’s fortunes are tied to many things, but you might boil them down to the paranoia level of a group of overstressed traders in a New York futures market, how hot it is in California, what China is up to this quarter, the production levels of other aluminum plants, and what the snow pack in the Northwest was like. Maybe I’ve oversimplified it a bit to make a point, but you get the idea. It’s amazing to me that my friend and CFAC General Manager Steve Knight and his staff have any hair left on their heads.

So what’s this got to do with you? You can’t afford what CFAC can.
Do any of us really care which place we stop for gas? You probably stop at the same place time after time simply out of habit. Would you miss that gas station if they closed? I’ll bet you wouldn’t.

To be sure, the gas station is just an example, but the point is still valid. If you look around, you can find a business that has allowed itself to become commoditized – and there’s one in every business niche.

Your job as a business owner is to give Flathead families a reason to do business with you rather than every other business you compete with, regardless of price, because they just couldn’t imagine going elsewhere.

What can your business do so well that it would motivate your ideal client to drive into Kalispell on a Friday afternoon?