Remember the old 'service' station? It's back

"I don't think we'll ever see the day where gasoline dealers wash your car. But nationwide, there certainly has been a return to some kind of service!" So says Richard Curry, who heads the national energy and environment department of the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Greater service -- "We clean windshields and check motor oil," boasts a bright banner streaming across a Shell station in Clifton, N.J. -- on top of already plummeting gasoline prices is helping to cushion the double blow of inflation and recession for consumers across the United States, according to the AAA as well as spokesmen for major oil companies, service station associations, and motorists.

"Extra service is general throughout the country because there is so much gasoline around," says Norm Alsteader, a spokesman for Shell Oil Company in New York. "Many, many dealers have cut their profit margins."

In fact, a new oil industry survey has found that gasoline dealers from Maine to Pennsylvania in many cases are charging 4 cents -- and sometimes even more -- below the maximum allowable profit margin set by the US Department of Energy. This is an about-face from the same period last year and is due to record-high gasoline reserves, the tremendous drop in auto sales, and good old-fashioned competition that has escalated into price wars in some areas of the country.

Shell, along with some other oil companies, has become directly involved in spearheading the concept, not of full service, but of what might be called "fuller service." Shell is actively encouraging station operators to keep later hours and to provide other services to make sure the public has "the most convenience."

To the harried motorist, this is quite a change from last year -- even after the gas supply crunch had ended -- when many station attendants worked what came to be known as "bankers' hours" and sometimes still overlooked minor details, such as replacing the gasoline cap after a fill-up.

An AAA spokesman said gasoline prices may well continue to moderate this summer. In many parts of the US, including metropolitan New York, gasoline prices have gone down significantly in the past few months at stations engaged in price battles.

After its May 23 survey of gasoline prices, the AAA reported the average price increases at full-service stations across the US were the lowest in three months. More than 6,000 stations were checked.

Moreover, the auto club said, the average price of all three grades of gasoline -- regular, unleaded, and premium -- actually went down at self-service stations. On April 25, the average price of regular at the self-serves was $1. 20.7; on May 23, the price was $1.20.1.

But Jack Houston, a spokesman for the 60,000-member Service Station Dealers of America, does not believe that price breaks will continue much beyond the summer because by that time the glut of gasoline may well have evaporated and new price hikes by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will have taken their toll at the retail level. (OPEC, meeting in Algiers June 9, reportedly will be presented with a Saudi Arabian proposal that, if accepted, probably would increase gasoline prices in the US by two cents a gallon later this year.)

On the matter of service, notes Mr. Houston: "Anytime there is an abundant supply of product, you renew your determination to get customers to buy it."

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