Books by John E. Smethers, Ph.D
Wasn't it nice when you could pull into a service station for gas and a friendly attendant would wash your windshield, check your oil and water, and air up your tires while you sat in the comfort of your warm comfortable car? Or was it?
On a cold stormy day a motorist pulled onto the island of a Texaco, or Mobil, or Union, or Shell to fill with gas. The driver rolled down his window and the friendly attendant smiled and asked, "What can I do for you today, sir?"
"fill it up with super," said the customer, taking in the familiar smell of gasoline and the musky odor of rain.
I was clean shaven, courteous, looking sharp in my clean white shirt and station trousers, and I eagerly done as the customer asked.
Once the gas was started, I returned to the car window with a friendly approach. "Would you like for me to check under your hood, sir?" Many service station salesmen would not ask; instead, they would lift the hood and start checking fluid levels. In my case the customer replied, "Yes, please."
It was characteristic to see a red grease rag in a station attendant's hand or hanging out of his hip pocket. I carried mine in my hand when I approached a customer, because inside of it I carried a small Elmer's Glue bottle filled with the hydraulic fluid that came out of an old shock absorber. It took me only a couple seconds to squirt a little of the fluid on one of the front shocks.
"Excuse me, sir," I said affably with serious concern, "you have oil leaking from your car."
"Oil? Where is it coming from?"
"I can't tell, sir, but it's awful near the tire. Just in case it's brake fluid or something, maybe you should pull it into the lube bay. It won't cost you anything to put it on the rack and check it out. It might save you some trouble on the road."
"Okay, if you don't mind."
What occurred between me and the unwitting customer was, and still is in some places, a confidence (con) game being initiated. The result was a big fat wad of money for me--the salesman, and for the station owner as well--usually fifty percent of the profit for each of us. Another name for we salesmen that worked on commission, were fifty percenters. Tourists were our marks. They were the ones that were at the mercy of the highway. Local customers usually had their own mechanics, so they were avoided.
These types of stations were known as merchandisers. Kill em' with kindness was the motto of the merchandiser, but be heartless in the pursuit of the sale.
Once inside the lube bay and up on the rack, I pointed out to the customer that the seal on the front shock absorber had ruptured and was leaking fluid. "To save yourself a much higher repair bill later, sir, it would be wise to replace these shocks now. It doesn't matter where you buy them. You can get them at a parts's store and install them yourself, or you can buy them at a department store where they're cheaper; however you decide to do it, you'll be money ahead in the long run doing it as soon as possible--before any further damage is done." Then I would explain what could happen to their vehicle if they continued to drive with it as it was.
"How much would it cost here, and how long would it take?"
I quoted a price and told them that I could complete the installation within fifteen minutes. "Furthermore, sir, this merchandise is guaranteed for the life of your car--anywhere in the United States or Canada, as long as it's one of our stations." This professional con job would usually cost the customer hundreds of dollars.
"Okay, put em on."
While the customer waited, he listened to the deafening roar of the impact wrench, parts dropping on the floor, and traffic driving by outside--all of which seemed quite normal. When the fifteen minutes were almost up, I walked into the waiting area where the customer was watching the rain, "sir, would you come with me, please?"
I brought the customer under the upraised car and pointed to one of the rear shock absorbers. "Looky here, sir, it isn't as bad as the front one, but the leaking has started back here too. The truth is, sir, you could go awhile before any real damage is done, but to be on the safe side, it's only an additional fifteen minutes to install these too." During my spiel the customer sensed honesty and concern, so he told me to install the rear ones too. I did.
While I was installing the shocks, I evaluated the condition of the customer's tires. If the car was fairly new and the tires had less than six or eight thirty-seconds of rubber left on them, and they had a credit card, then they were prime for a tire sale. Flaws and defects can easily be found on any tire, which can be exaggerated; however, why take the chance that the customer might not buy tires? Therefore, to insure that they would, I carried a small, sharpened, stubby screwdriver, called a honker, which was used to cut the tire a little--just enough to show the cords on the inside of the rubber. I did this to two or three of the tires, and the result was generally the sale of a set of new tires.
Another approach to selling tires was on the island when the motorists were gassing up. If a customer's car already had new shocks, then I obviously could not sell them new ones. Instead, I would try selling them something else. In my pockets, along with my squirt bottle and honker, I carried another devious little tool called a pinner. It was also a small screwdriver, but not the stubby kind. This little screwdriver was sharpened like a pin to poke small holes in the tire. I would not pin a tire on the island while they were getting gas, because if they did not come into the lube bay, then they would leave and have a flat down the road. Some salesmen had a conscience. After checking under the hood I would grab the air hose and pretend to air up a tire. As I did so I would look up at the customer, and tell him that his tire only had about ten or fifteen pounds of air in it. This generally was cause for alarm. I would offer to pull the car into the lube bay and check it at no cost. I told them that if there was nothing wrong with it, then they could safely go on their way. If there was, however, then it would cost them to repair or replace the tire. While I was adjusting the racks--preparing to raise up the vehicle--I would pin one of their tires and honk two of the others. The stage was set for a tire sale.
Depending on how convinced, and how willing he was to part with his money, was whether I would continue to sell the customer automotive parts and accessories. Another major criteria for how far I pushed it, was how unscrupulous or money-hungry the owner of the station was. If he did not care what lengths we went to for a sale, then the sky was the limit and we salesmen continued to drain the customer. However, if the owner wanted to stay in business for awhile, then he had to avoid customer complaints, therefore deceitful or fraudulent sales tactics would be limited or prohibited. By the time the customer rolled out of the driveway, they were happy and grateful that the condition of their vehicle was brought to their attention and taken care of so efficiently. To break down on the highway would be, to say the least, undesirable; therefore, service stations and their bright and friendly attendants were, and possibly still are, often thought of as saviors.
Sometimes customers would not have to be sold, per se; just the mention of something wrong would persuade the customer to repair or replace whatever the vehicle needed: "Okay sir, whatever you think the car needs, just put it on or fix it. We have a credit card and we don't want to have any trouble on the road."
With customers so willing to part with their money, fifty percenters were all too willing to take it. After four shocks and a set of tires, I would often replace various other parts such as fan clutches, batteries, alternators, and fuel pumps. Usually though, it was one of those items that I would sell first. Furthermore, these merchandising stations usually stocked all the parts. In the event we did not have them in stock, it took only minutes to have them delivered from a parts house, or we borrowed them from a nearby merchandiser.
An elderly lady pulled into a merchandising station one day. The salesman, a man whom I was working with at the time, lured her into the lube bay. Without letting her out of the car, the salesman raised the vehicle up on the rack, assuring her she was safe and that it would not take long. A few minutes later he informed her that she needed four tires, and that to let her down and allow her to drive away would be endangering her and the lives of others on the highway. The salesman would not let her down until she bought a full set of tires. Obviously, the station owner did not care what lengths this salesman went to.
Being savagely unscrupulous was one end of the spectrum of this business, whereas the other end of the spectrum was, and still is, legitimacy. This article is not intended to deter people from having work done on their cars at service stations, but it is intended for people to exercise caution wherever they have work done--service stations or otherwise.
Whether the customers needed the parts or not, it is a good thing that mini markets--for the most part--have replaced the widespread practice of the lube bay bandits.