Twice the price half as nice

What was the lowest price you ever paid for gasoline? When I was 18, I bought gas in Kansas for 23 cents a gallon. It wasn’t a promotion or a gimmick, it was just the price of gas in the late spring of 1968. I only remember it because, even then, it seemed like a ridiculously low price for gas. Sure enough, it soon shot back up to its normal price of 28 cents a gallon. The minimum wage that year was $1.60 an hour.

For 23 cents a gallon, a guy in a uniform came out, pumped the gas, washed all the bug-splattered windows, checked the oil and asked if I wanted the tire pressure checked. I said “No,” and handed him $3 for filling it up. He reached in his pocket and gave me my change.

The gas station was where you went to have your oil changed, your tires fixed, your engine tuned. Now, gas is 4-something dollars a gallon. On a recent trip through Pennsylvania, I had to beg the on-duty attendant in her tiny bulletproof booth to come out and explain how the self-serve pump works because no two pumps in Pennsylvania seem to work alike. They make it like a “Survivor” challenge just to pump gas, except you don’t get a chance of winning a million dollars, just a chance to squirt gas on you shoes. Should I even bother to mention that my windows didn’t get washed?

How is it that we got so much more service for 23 cents a gallon gas than we do for a $4 per gallon of gas? It defies all laws of economics. In theory, the less you paid for something, the less service you would get. At $4 a gallon for a fill-up, we should be getting a free spa treatment, a back rub and a manicure while we relax in the gas station’s VIP lounge watching HBO on the large-screen plasma television.

It’s not just gas stations – lack of service is everywhere. It bothers me to go to a restaurant that has a salad bar. If I wanted to make my own salad, I could stay at home and make one. You don’t have to be an Iron Chef to chop up some lettuce. How much should I tip myself for making my own salad? What’s next? They’ll let me cook my own meal? Wow, we’ve got to go out more often. They call it self-service. If they called it work, would you pay for it?

“Gee, Honey, isn’t this great, the grocery store is letting us check out our own groceries and they’re letting us bag them ourselves. It’s a dream come true. It’s hard to believe they used to pay cashiers for having this much fun.”

Most banks are self-work, I mean self-serve now, charging a dollar or two per transaction at a machine. If you go to a teller, it’s free. Banks have to pay the teller a salary, health care and a pension – the ATM machine gets none of that. Shouldn’t the machine be free? It’s the teller who should be charging for each transaction.

It wasn’t that long ago that when you ordered a soda at a fast food joint they used to give you a soda. Now they hand you an empty cup and point you to a self-service soda machine. I don’t know how much money this labor-saving step saves them, but it must be a fraction of a penny on every 1 million transactions. And small, children love it. “MOMMMMM! I can do it myself!!!” What could possibly go wrong? How much more do they spend cleaning up the mess?

At my local convenience store, the one that replaced the full-service gas station that used to be there, I pour my own coffee, microwave my own lunch, get my own napkins and utensils, then pay twice the price I would have in a place where it would all be done for me. I asked one clerk why everything was so expensive. He said, “The convenience.” No doubt, but for whom?

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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