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    Full-Service Making a Comeback?

    Three Louisiana retailers hope amenities will pump up the fuel business.

    HAMMOND, La. -- Washing the windshield, checking the oil and inflating the tires ? these are some of the lost services at gas stations that are now becoming more and more popular at three stations in Lousiana. And as tobacco taxes rise and fuel margins continue to dwindle, retailers there hope these services will continue to pump up the business.

    "We are the last of a dying breed," said Darrell Kropog, who along with his brother, Kenneth, runs a Conoco station their father bought more than 40 years ago

    Darrell, 45, was four years old when his father, Johnny, bought the building in 1961. The building, which dates to the 1940s, was built as a fuel station but not under the Conoco brand. Another building for repairs was added in 1993. Other than that, the station has remained the same, according to The Hammond (La.) Daily Star. Darrell started working at the station when he was 12 and continued to do so all through high school and college. He took a seven-year hiatus but came back, and the brothers bought the business from their father in 1998. Their father died in February 2001, and the brothers have maintained Johnny's Conoco.

    The brothers and a handful of other workers handle lots of jobs, including oil and filter changes, brake repairs, tune-ups, tire repairs and replacements and engine and air-conditioner service. "You name it; we do it," Darrell said, adding that the service quality is just as good as more modern repair shops. "I can do everything those guys do." "I like cars," Kenneth said. "I like seeing and talking with people everyday."

    Not far down the road, David Spano also continues the full-service tradition, the report said. For 32 years, Spano, 58, has run a Shell station in downtown. His wife of 38 years, Roselyn, and his son, David Spano Jr., 36, also work full time at the business as does his nephew.

    Spano is an industry lifer. He began working at a local grocery store when he was 13, then at 19 worked at a local supermarket as a butcher. Those jobs taught him how to deal with the public and led him to want his own business. He bought the then-eight-year-old property as a Shell station, but as of last year, with Shell's new approach to convenience store operations, the business no longer is affiliated with the company.

    Shell had wanted him to revamp the appearance of the station and make it more modern by including groceries and snacks. "Everything is marketed in a totally different way today," he said. "Used to be everybody was full-service." Modern fuel stations concentrate their efforts on getting people to buy food and other non-fuel items, he said. Service is sacrificed for speed and cheap products. Spano said his bathrooms, unlike the ones at most modern fuel stations, are as clean as a home bathroom.

    Still, older stations are being phased out and replaced with the newer ones. Spano would have had to invest $40,000 to update his business to suit Shell. Now he no longer carries the Shell label and sells unbranded fuel. Johnny's Conoco also felt pressure in 1998 from Conoco, which wanted to change the colors of the station to neon green. The Kropogs resisted. "We're not going to change from what we are," Darrell said.

    Because Hammond, La.'s three full-service stations are in a historic district, they were not forced to change their appearance. The oldest of Hammond's full-service stations, Quinn's Texaco, also looks mostly as it did when it was built in 1934, said co-owner Davey Quinn, 43. In 1944, Quinn's father, Herbert, began working at the station when he was 14. About 15 years later, Herbert took over the business and ran it until four days before his death in 2001. Davey has worked at the station since he was 17. "It hasn't changed that much, which is good because change isn't always best," he told The Daily Star.

    Keeping a full-service station open in a competitive market isn't easy, the brothers agree, "but it's going to come back and look out when it does," Quinn said.

    Full-service gas averages about 15 cents more than self-serve stations charge, but people who use full-service say the money is not wasted. For example, self-serve stations do not check tire pressure, belts or other critical components of a vehicle, Jeff Spano said. "The few pennies you save on self-serve, it's going to cost you a lot more in the long-run," he said.

    The station owners said business has been growing for the whole full-service industry because it fills a need for so many people. "I see a great future," Darrell Kropog said. "I think the service industry as a whole is just flourishing."

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