Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2006

Self-service uniformity needed

Gas pump diversity makes fools of customers

August 31, 2006

It happened again the other day.

I found myself standing at the gasoline 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, it's not I'm truly 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 checked my rearview mirror for two blocks, fearing someone was in hot pursuit after a pump didn't kick out an expected receipt.

I know the consequences of that. I could lose my driver's license. In bold no-nonsense script, it's printed right there on the pump much more clearly than the operating directions.

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 could engage in conversation, which however trite was better than listening to an endless infomercial about what was available at the convenience story.

The digital, self-service age has removed the human and service elements from the exchange. Machines,when they do talk, tend to give instructions in monotones. Actually, it sounds more like they're giving orders, slowly but surely establishing their place in the information food chain.

But no matter what they impart or however sweetly they're programmed to talk, they aren't going to inflate your tires.

But, that's not what I want. I only want the high-price gasoline stored in their bellies.

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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