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Japan not pumped up by self-serve

When Sanae Nakano pulled into her usual gas station the other day, she was handed a leaflet explaining the ABCs of filling the tank, starting with "Park the car in an open space."

Nakano wasn't pleased to learn that her neighborhood General Oil station in Yokohama had become one of Japan's self-serve-gas guinea pigs.

"I'm afraid I'll set the place on fire," Nakano confided, as an attendant coaching first-time gas-pumpers held the nozzle while she and her two young children huddled around the pump. "It's a lot of trouble. You didn't have to get out of the car before."

Though self-serve stations have been part of the U.S. landscape for two decades _ and most Americans now fill their own tanks _ Japanese drivers could do so only beginning April 1.

Despite a lot of hoopla in Japan, however, self-serve appears to be off to a slow start. Daunted by the high cost of equipment conversion, extensive safety requirements and thin profit-margin forecasts, only a handful of stations nationwide have gone the do-it-yourself route.

And those that have made the switch are counting on a rather curious draw to lure new customers: shame. Most customers feel too embarrassed to order anything less than a full tank in return for full service. In Japan, where gas sells for double what it costs in the United States, that can be a pricey proposition.

So far, there's been little monetary incentive to entice drivers to prime the pumps themselves. At least not while full-service coddling is available down the street for, at most, dimes more per tank. Such a small premium is hardly an indulgence in an expensive country with an excellent public transit system, where cars are more ornament than utility.

"They just make my windshield squeaky clean and wash my tires so they look brand new," gushed Rei Yaegashi, 25, as three attendants yelling "Irashaimase!" _ "Welcome!" _ ushered him into a full-service station in Tokyo, filled his tank, washed his windows, dumped his ashtray and checked his oil, transmission fluid and battery. "I don't think most Japanese will want to do it themselves, especially girls," he said.

As Yaegashi pulled away, an attendant jumped into a busy street to halt oncoming traffic and directed him out of the lot _ all part of the full-serve routine here. Explained station manager Yasunori Kikuchi, "I don't think consumers can pull in, pump gas and leave the station without bumping into each other or making a mess in a small place like this."

Indeed, even the oil companies that have ventured into the self-serve business are skeptical of its viability. Cosmo Oil, the third-largest gas station operator in Japan with 6,573 stations, has opened just one self-serve stand and plans only a dozen in the next year. Nippon Oil, the largest with 9,700 stations, has launched just two, including one joint venture with a McDonald's restaurant in Kobe. (The idea is to entice customers pulling out of the station to drive directly into the adjacent hamburger stand.)

General Oil, a joint venture between Exxon Corp. and several Japanese companies that has 2,400 stations, initially planned 20 self-serve stations but cut back to four.

"We didn't think the returns would be so quick," said Hidenobu Fujiyama, General Oil's managing director, who was on hand during the launch of the self-serve station in Yokohama.

Converting from full-serve to self-serve involves a $200,000 investment, he said, since Japan mandates far more equipment than the United States requires. Devices that automatically douse flames at the pump and detect when diesel fuel is mistakenly pumped into an unleaded tank are mandatory. Video cameras must be trained on each pump to relay images to a monitor at the cashier stand. And an attendant equipped to deal with hazardous materials must be on duty at all times.

Nevertheless, Fujiyama figures self-serve cuts labor costs in half _ and labor expenses constitute half of total operating costs. A union representing workers has complained about possible staff reductions, although the gas stations maintain they employ mostly part-timers anyway.

Despite the savings, General Oil sells self-serve gas in Yokohama for 78 yen, or 60 cents, per liter, only about 2 cents less than the price offered by the full-serve JOMO station down the street. So customers save only about 60 cents on a typical 30-liter purchase. High-octane fuel sells for exactly the same as when the station was full-serve.

The paltry incentives prompt about one of every five customers at the self-serve station to complain, said a General Oil cashier in Yokohama.

"It's okay today because the weather is nice," said Yukie Seki. "But if it's cold or rainy and you have to get out of your car, it's not worth it."

Indeed, dozens of customers said they'd convert to self-serve if the savings were greater. "I'm not motivated to go now," said Junichi Anzai.

But ferocious competition keeps prices at the pump from falling, said General Oil's Fujiyama. Though still expensive, gas prices have been tumbling in the two years since Japan began allowing imports of oil products refined outside the country. So supermarkets and other non-oil companies have begun selling gas, too.

"If we lower the price, then others will lower the price, and it will be difficult to catch up," Fujiyama said.

One group that's accepting the changes better than anticipated is women, says Fujiyama. The gas company thought of dispensing gloves to offset concerns that women wouldn't want to get their hands dirty. They rejected the idea, however, after concluding that using gloves worn by other customers would be even more of a turnoff than pumping barehanded.

But the attendants make sure the station is kept clean, wiping down the pumps and even the trash bins during lulls in business.

And some, like Kumiko Takada, who filled her Jeep Cherokee herself for the first time, find it's far easier than they thought. "Americans do everything for their cars by themselves, so it's good for Japanese to start doing it, too."