To drivers of a certain age, they are remembered fondly. After motorists pulled into a petrol station, a man would emerge from a tiny kiosk, ask how many liters were required and then proceed to ‘fill her up’. Today, the drive for profits means they have been phased out and stations have become the 24-hour self-service forecourts we all know.
But in a remarkable turnaround, Shell is to reintroduce forecourt attendants at more than 300 of its sites by the end of the summer. Faced with cut-price competition from supermarkets, the company, which has almost 1,000 petrol stations nationwide, believes that offering free, customer-friendly service to motorists will encourage loyalty.
And in a throwback to a golden age of motoring, Shell’s AA-trained staff will offer basic car maintenance, such as checking tyres, as well as handling the petrol pump.
The service could prove popular with female motorists who have little knowledge of – or inclination to carry out – routine maintenance such as checking tyre pressures and topping up oil levels.
‘When we had a shift away from the old-style garage to modern petrol stations, it became all about keeping customers on the move, getting them in and out as quickly as possible,’ said Melanie Lane, Shell’s retail general manager. ‘Today’s motorists spend between £50 and £100 to fill up their vehicles and are increasingly time-poor, so they’d much rather be somewhere else than standing on a forecourt pumping petrol. Our way means they can go inside while their tank is filled, buy a few bits and pieces and their fuel bill will be delivered to them at the kiosk, so there won’t be any slowing down of forecourt traffic.’
For many British drivers, their only experience of pump attendants is abroad, where it is often unclear whether they are being charged extra for the service or are expected to offer a tip. Many American filling stations charge a premium for ‘full service’, but Shell insists this will not apply to its new initiative.
‘The attendants will be easily recognisable in bright red uniforms with high-visibility stripes,’ Ms Lane added. ‘There will be a sign outside to say there’s an attendant on duty – there will always be one attendant on hand during six to eight daylight hours, seven days a week. They are a broad mix of age, gender and ethnicity and we plan to roll out this service to 600 locations by mid-2013.’
The move was applauded by motoring groups. Edmund King, president of the AA, said: ‘In today’s world of anonymous forecourts, putting someone there to help must be a welcome development. It may also make solo women drivers feel safer having a human presence among the pumps. A fair proportion of drivers don’t know how to check tyre pressures and fluid levels. For that category of driver, an attendant on duty will be extremely helpful.’