San Francisco wants gas stations to keep washing the windshields

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Concerned that trends in gas-station marketing could virtually make this peninsular city a self-service island, San Francisco supervisors passed an ordinance this week to make it tougher for full-serve gas stations to convert to self-service stations. The ordinance, which awaits the mayor's signature, would not permit conversions without first getting input from neighborhoods that stand to lose full-service stations that now provide air, water, oil, battery checks, windshield washing, minor repairs, and someone to pump gas. Further, the public-works department could require the station owners who are converting to self-serve to post signs informing the public of the nearest locations for additional automotive services.

The ordinance is one of seven passed by California cities and counties in a campaign by the California Service Station Council to help independent station owners resist pressure from large oil companies to switch to the high-volume marketing technique of self-service, says Jim Campbell, executive director of the council.

It was fewer than 10 years ago that self-service pumps were made legal in the city. But the trend, fostered by market conditions like high real-estate prices and high costs of overhead, has captured about three-quarters of the nation's retail gas sales. And San Francisco, which has some of the highest real-estate prices in the country, has been no exception.

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Nationally, between 1981 and 1984 gas stations without service bays increased nearly 13 percentage points, says Trilby Lundberg, who is with the Lundberg Letter, a monthly oil-industry analysis.

``The consumer has made it pretty clear [he wants self-service]. . . . It does cost money to serve people, and the spreads [in price differences] are big,'' explains Ben Smith, manager of dealer and consumer affairs for Chevron USA marketing. Chevron, which was in the midst of a station conversion that neighbors objected to, has opposed the ordinance. ``If we're not free to reconstruct our facilities to meet the market needs and be able to stay on a very valuable piece of property, we'll disappear from corners.''

Mr. Smith notes that a dealer leasing property from Chevron pays rent keyed to the volume level a station can be expected to produce. Self-serve is a high-volume situation, and a full-serve dealer might have to go self-serve in order to meet the rent.

``The ordinance doesn't say you can't convert, but now you've got to check with somebody before you do,'' says Milt Seropan, owner of a full-service Texaco on the section of busy Highway 101, where it slices through the heart of San Francisco. ``The community should have something to say about it. Part of the reason you move to a neighborhood is the movie [theater], the grocery store, and the gas station. In this neighborhood there are only two garages, and we've got thousands of cars,'' he says. Because of station conversions, he adds, he now has a waiting list for customers who want car repairs.

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