MOBIL RETURNS SERVICE TO SERVICE STATIONS

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ORLANDO-"How can we help you?"

For some 80 Mobil Oil station owners and managers in the Orlando area, it's more than an ad slogan. It's the beginning of a relationship.

With clean, well-lighted rest-rooms, service with a smile and thank you cards for some customers' patronage, Fairfax, Va.-based Mobil Oil Corp. has canned the spartan tradition of self-serve in the hope that a friendly face on the service island will boost customer appreciation and sales-without boosting the price from that of a self-serve gallon.

Before launching the effort, dubbed Friendly Serve and now in the midst of a yearlong test, Mobil studied Ritz Carlton Hotel Co., Southwest Airlines Co. and Home Depot to see how those companies lure employees and patrons, said Molly Meloy, communications manager-fuels at Mobil.

Staging the test in Orlando provided a closed media market to air five spot TV ads, from DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago. It also allowed the company to establish a benchmark for its efforts in a town known for Walt Disney Co.'s service reputation, Ms. Meloy added. While declining to provide detail, Ms. Meloy said research showed the TV spots had moved Mobil ahead of competitors in awareness among consumers in the Orlando market and out of a parity situation.

Gilbert Galceran, a franchise dealer who runs two Winter Park, Fla., Mobil stations, slaps his forehead in mock surprise when he recalls the September day last year when Mobil executives announced the plan.

"Wow! What a concept," Mr. Galceran joked about the proposal to return service to service stations, something he felt should have happened earlier.

But Friendly Serve puts more than an attendant on the service island. The restrooms are clean and the entire station is awash in light, as customer surveys revealed that safety was important to patrons.

"It's the whole package," Ms. Meloy said. "It's not just putting a person out on the island to wave at you."

Orlando was chosen because "it's a heavy service industry-based town," Ms. Meloy said. Here, Disney has the mouse and Mobil has Joey Morales, a 17-year-old high school senior.

Wearing a red tie and a warm smile, Joey offers to clean the windshield, check the oil, pump gas for elderly or handicapped patrons or take money to the cashier for a parent with a small child in the car.

It's the service-not the price per gallon-that lures Deputy Michael Hayman of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Since he gasses up at the sheriff's office pumps, Deputy Hayman comes for exactly what Friendly Serve is designed to push.

When it's time to gas up the personal car, the deputy added, "We don't go anywhere but Mobil."

Being friendly has a cost; at minimum wage ($4.25 per hour) it adds up to $357 a week, plus taxes. Is cost an inhibiting factor? Certainly, but it hasn't scared Mr. Galceran away.

With a Citgo to the south and a Texaco to the north, keeping his price-per-gallon in line with the competition is important.

"I was not one who had to be sold [on service]," Mr. Galceran said. "It is a big labor burden. But if you're making your customer feel warm and fuzzy, then it has to pay for itself."

Though many of the company's 8,000 dealers have accepted the concept, Mobil will inform dealers of the test's results next year at the company's dealer convention in Las Vegas, said Ms. Meloy.

Houston-based Shell Oil is experimenting with a similar concept in four U.S. markets. In the Houston area, it's called the "Red Tie Experience"; in the Northeast, it's "Tender Loving Care." It's also being explored in Palm Springs, Calif., and Ohio, according to a Shell executive.

However if the service is anything but what is promised, it could cause problems, said Larry Moore, VP-director, automotive products division, NPD Group, a Houston-based marketing research company.

"It's often very difficult to deliver that [quality of service,]" he said. "You heighten awareness and expectations. You can control things like product. But this sort of above-and-beyond type of experience is harder to control."

But don't tell Stacy Ellis that Mobil is having a problem being friendly. The 25-year-old University of Central Florida graphic arts major fills up at the station weekly. Not because it's the only gas card in her wallet, she said. "They're always very nice," she said, as Joey wiped the windshield of her Jeep Wrangler.

As she pulled out onto Goldenrod Road, she looked back over her tailgate. "I'll see you next week," she said.

Mobil is counting on it.

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