Filling my car with petrol the other day I somehow managed to douse myself in it. I looked around for someone to tell a self-immolation joke or two, but only found the usual array of grim-faced types brandishing nozzles. I wafted in to pay, and the man behind the counter did not even register that he was serving a human petrol bomb. "Sixteen pounds," he grunted. It was enough to make you want a cigarette very badly indeed.
So it was with a sense of relief that I read that Shell are bringing back the pump attendant. I plan to be first in the queue. "Can I help you?" the young and rather muscular petrol pump attendant used to ask as I drove up. And, of course, he could. There were tanks to fill, windows to wipe, oil to be dipped. Now the only service-type humans on hand at petrol stations are the grunting ones who barely look up as they take your money.
They call it "self-serve" but I just call it rude. It is hard to think of a shop where you have to do so much for yourself. Do restaurants insist that you whip up your own lunch?
"The last thing women want to do is pump their own petrol," said Phil Turberville, a Shell executive turned pump attendant who launched the company's "pit stop" initiative. This is, of course, deeply sexist but sounds OK by me. I can remember the day my colleague Barb gasped: "Fill my own tank! Why would I want to do that if someone will do it for me?"
In recent years there has been no one in Britain to serve the Barbs of this world. Kathryn Pope, brand development manager for Shell UK, understands this because Shell has been analysing its customers.
"Price is not the driving force for most of the UK," she says. Instead the company identified six customer attitudes. There are those who buy brand names and those who don't care. Some are guided only by price while others will not queue. Finally there are "low confidence drivers" and the bolder, "relaxed" type.
Ms Pope would not spell out who exactly would go for service over price, say, but Barb, for example, is more than a little impatient, hates getting dirty and likes to feel valued.
In some countries it is illegal to pump your own petrol. The idea is to preserve minimum-wage jobs but the result is that drivers get to sit back while someone else does the dirty work. It's the kind of thing some of us human petrol bombs could get used to very quickly indeed.
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