Archive for Thursday, August 24, 2006

Self-service uniformity overdue

Gas pump diversity makes fools of customers

August 24, 2006

It happened again the other day.

I found myself standing at the gas island, nozzle in hand, wondering how to make the pump fill my car.

It's not that I'm adverse to do-it-yourself shopping technology. I've used the no-clerk checkout lanes at grocery stores, the real test of early 21st century shopping expertise.

But self-service gas pumps continue to make a fool out of me. The problem is that three decades into the self-service age, it seems there are no two pumps with the same controls.

ATM machines share this puzzling lack of uniformity, but they seem to have better directions. I can negotiate them with ease.

They just can't seem to take the guessing game out of self-service pumps. I reach down to lift the pump cradle, only to find it securely bolted in place. If I assume the pump cradle is secured, I inevitably find I have to lift it.

Then there's the ever-changing series of buttons to push, purposely made different so smirking convenience store clerks can tell cohorts, "You've got to be smarter than the pump" -- as I once heard one say as some poor customer struggled with the pump's complexity.

To simplify things somewhat, I used to always "pay inside." Fill it up and let the clerk figure it out was my thinking. But with record high gas prices encouraging pump runaways, I'm forced more and more to pay at the pump. Well, I'm not forced to, but how do you "pre-pay" when you don't know how much you're going to need?

Once you've filled up, all too often the receipt tape is empty. I like to get receipts -- not out of an obsessive need to track my purchases but for peace of mind. I like the machine to acknowledge our transaction is complete. I don't want to be wrongly taken as a drive off because I failed to push some hidden button. I recently looked in my rearview mirror for two blocks for someone in hot pursuit after a pump didn't kick out a receipt.

I don't need that. It's bad enough a trip to the pump swallows up what I once paid to ride Amtrak halfway across the continent.

I know we're not talking a politician-get-involved level of concern here. But these little frustrations grind on me.

It makes you pine for the now long-gone days of attendants in vaguely military uniforms, who not only filled your vehicle as numbers rolled by on the pump dinging at significant milestones but checked your oil and cleaned the windshield.

You don't find that level of service for all the digital age is supposed to make our lives easier. Machines, even talking machines, aren't going to inflate your tires.

So here's my request to the industry. Stop with all the bells and whistles. Find a simple design and stick with it for at least a couple of years. If I want innovation, I'll buy a new home computer.

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