Celebrating the C-Store 'Selfie'

Self-service fueling turns 50

Published in CSP Daily News

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- When convenience store operator John Roscoe flipped the switch at his retail outlet in Westminster, Colo., 50 years ago, he activate the first U.S. remote-access self-service gasoline pumps.

It also "supercharged" the nascent convenience store industry, said the National Association of Convenience Stores, allowing stores to add fueling operations without adding attendants. Today, convenience stores sell 80% of the fuel purchased in the United States, according to NACS.

"What made self-serve so important to the convenience store industry was that we already had the facility," said Roscoe, who now lives in Fairfield, Calif. "By spending $10,000, we effectively got the gasoline business from full-serve gas stations without their labor expenses."

Roscoe's wasn't the first self-serve gas station--as far back as the 1930s, some stores allowed customers to pump their fuel with a nearby attendant resetting the pump and collecting money--but this station was the first that allowed true self-serve as we've come to know it.

"This innovation not only changed fueling, but the concept of self-serve that we know today," said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for NACS. "Because it was so unique, it took a good decade to truly catch on, but once it did, convenience stores quickly became the country's dominant fueling stations and other modern conveniences like to-go coffee, self-serve fountain soda and ATMs soon followed."

"It changed the convenience store industry forever," said Roscoe. "It allowed convenience store operators to locate on better sites and increase their overall attractiveness."

When Roscoe opened his pump in 1964, state fire codes prohibited self-serve fueling in most of the country, but restrictions were gradually removed to allow for self-service dispensers. Today, self-service is still prohibited in New Jersey and Oregon, as well as in a few scattered municipalities across the country.

Despite the change in state laws, acceptance within the convenience store industry was slow. To encourage others to jump on the self-serve bandwagon, Roscoe offered to speak about his success on a panel called "New Concepts of Merchandising for Profit" at the 1964 NACS Annual Meeting.

"I was with a person on the panel who operated a meat market in Oregon. After the presentations, all of the questions from the floor were directed to the meat market operator. Gasoline sparked no one's interest," recalled Roscoe.

Roscoe's fuel sales rose, and he quickly added self-serve fueling to additional sites.

Consumers, on the other hand, loved the idea from the start. Because convenience stores could sell unbranded gasoline from self-service pumps cheaper than the branded, full-service stations, customers flocked to convenience stores for their fillups.

"The public is always interested in lower prices, and immediately went for self-service gasoline," said Roscoe. With gasoline typically selling for 20 cents per gallon, a discount of two cents per gallon translated into a 10% savings. "That was significant enough to bring people in."

Also, click here for a Denver Post interview with Roscoe.