TAMPA — Air may be free, but not at most of the machines where you pump it into your tires.
Still, there's one gas station-convenience store chain that can't give away its compressed air fast enough, so it's adding an additional tire pump at each Tampa Bay location.
Wawa, the Pennsylvania-based company that arrived here in February 2013 and has grown to over 30 local stores, already commands high customer loyalty with its gas prices, fresh food and appealing layout.
Add another amenity to the list.
"We offer free air as a service for our customers," Lori Bruce, Wawa public relations manager, said via email.
Free air is so popular, in fact, lines often form at the Wawa machines and tempers sometimes flare.
Gene Sainz, a 66-year-old retired insurance executive, said he nearly ended up in a fight when a younger man accused him of taking cuts.
Sainz said he stared the man down, declared, "When I'm done, sir, you can use it," and the accuser stepped quietly back into his car.
Anthony Fernandez, a Wawa regular, said the company should provide clearer lanes for its free-air customers to avoid the tension.
"I`m concerned that when I go to fill my tires I`m maybe cutting someone off," he said. "I've witnessed a few tempers flaring up and it's not a pretty sight."
Debra Gonzalez of Carrollwood said she would just as soon avoid all the trouble.
"Every time I pass by Wawa for free air, there's just too many cars waiting," Gonzalez said. "It's worth paying the $1.50 at the other places."
Wawa wasn't aware of any issues with lines at its stores, spokeswoman Bruce said.
Other major gas station-convenience store chains like 7-11, Thornton's and Race Trac charge about $1.50 for five minutes of compressed air, often payable by credit card or exact change.
Adding new air machines at all stores is an expensive proposition for Wawa, with a reliable machine costing $2,000 to $4,200, said Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association.
The investment shows Wawa sees free air as a way to draw customers who will spend money inside, said Carol Osborne, director of the Zimmerman Advertising Program at the University of South Florida. Osborne compared it to other retailers' popular buy-one, get-one-free offers.
"Corporate marketing and advertising executives call it a quick-win," she said. "It's a brilliant idea that's similar to the Bogo program at Publix."
Contact Mike Merino at email@example.com