When the gas station comes to you, why have a gas station?
Posted April 27, 2018 1:01 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- Well, this is bad timing. Now, that we have gas stations and convenience stores all over the place, are we on the verge of no longer needing so many?
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Forget hopes for electric cars for a moment. We're talking about drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles no longer having to hustle to the gas station. Because the station soon may be coming to them.
A host of startup delivery companies are bringing fuel directly to consumers' vehicles, filling up cars parked in office lots, apartment spaces and home driveways. Sometimes the service is a perk subsidized by employers.
As long as government regulators don't get in the way -- and it sounds as if they might in Georgia with the encouragement of incumbent operators. More on that in a moment.
At least one of the delivery businesses operates in metro Atlanta. The San Francisco-based company, Yoshi, is backed by giants ExxonMobil and GM and offers other services including mobile oil changes and fresh windshield wipers.
Atlanta is its fastest growing market, chief executive Nick Alexander told me. That's starting from a base of zero, of course, but they have big plans.
"We have a goal to be the largest lube shop and gas station in the metro area," Alexander said.
He recently announced plans to double Yoshi's Georgia territory, expanding beyond downtown Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Buckhead, Midtown and Smyrna to Druid Hills, Decatur, Dunwoody, Doraville and Chamblee. The company also makes deliveries in the San Francisco area; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Cleveland; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Nashville, Tennessee; St. Louis; and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.
Pause for reflection. How pampered are we?
Tasks I never considered to be great burdens of daily life are getting workarounds in our on-demand society. Eliminating the friction or time drain is a potential business opportunity. Which partly explains food trucks, mobile car washes and even mobile car mechanics.
So if now I can order gas delivery on an app (or have it automatically scheduled as a subscription service, as Yoshi prefers), what's next?
Hands-free eating? Touch an app and someone delivers grapes directly to my mouth?
How it works
Under one option offered by Yoshi, customers pay a $20 monthly subscription fee, then pay a little less per gallon than the published AAA market rate of what local stations charge.
Some employees, such as those at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, get a discount on the subscription fee.
Yoshi customers can have set gas deliveries one or more times a week or tap to schedule them as needed.
I met Yoshi field tech and supervisor Brian Glanton just after he had topped off the tank of a shiny $60,000-plus GMC Denali. He told me he fills up everything from Bentleys to Camrys and Mini Coopers for doctors, entertainers, executives, nurses and regular office workers.
Most are drawn by the time savings, Glanton said. They can leave their gas lids popped and depend on him to do the fill-ups while they aren't around.
Some customers also see the service as a way to avoid safety concerns at gas stations, he said.
Which reminds me of public safety announcements I recently heard on loud speakers at a gas station near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. They warned customers to lock car doors and, I inferred, brace for a carjacking. I can imagine how out-of-towners react to the advice.
Glanton said he's noticed women show more interest in Yoshi than men do, including some of his guy friends.
"They say, 'Man, those people must be lazy.'"
Ryan Maki, a founding partner at Fieldstone Realty Partners in metro Atlanta, pays the Yoshi monthly subscription as a perk for employees. When battling traffic, he said, it can be a pain to try to find a gas station on your commute that's easy to get into and out of.
"It's nice," he said, "to never worry about your gas tank."
But he said he thinks Yoshi seems to have grown more slowly than he initially expected.
Who will get disrupted
It's the potential that captivates venture capitalists and others drawn to such startups.
We consume nearly 400 million gallons of gasoline per day in the United States, so even a sliver of the market would be big, if they can serve it efficiently.
A lot of existing businesses could be undercut if that happens. There are more than 10,000 self-service gas stations in Georgia alone.
Convenience store operators have been going through their own version of changes. Cobb County, Georgia-based RaceTrac even sells its own private-label brand of bottled wine now. But so far, a spokeswoman for the chain told me they haven't seen much demand yet for so-called fuel concierge services.
"We don't consider it a threat to our business model," Ashleigh Womack said. "It is something we are keeping an eye on."
Roger Lane, the president of the Georgia Oilmen's Association, told me the gas-delivered-to-you deal is illegal and needs to stop. Plus, he said he doesn't see why it might appeal to consumers.
"I don't know why anybody would need that. We have a tremendous amount of great convenience stores. ... There's about one on every corner."
I bet book store owners considered similar arguments back in the early days of Amazon. Didn't work out so well.
The Georgia Office of Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner also has concluded that the delivery services are illegal, according to spokesman Glenn Allen, who told me he had been unaware Yoshi was operating locally.
"This is something we are looking into," he said.
The folks at Yoshi say everything should be fine: The company is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.
Yoshi "designed everything from our equipment, to our processes and software to be not only compliant but optimized for safety," the CEO said.
He said the company relies on pickup trucks carrying tanks of 110 gallons each, which he said falls below levels that would put it under some additional regulations.
Reasonable safety rules have to be followed. And the public demands care. But let's hope Georgia government officials and rules are flexible enough to allow innovative businesses new ways to serve us.
Electric vehicles and autonomous cars may eventually make delivering gasoline moot. Until then, let's give the newcomers a chance to pamper us.
Matt Kempner writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: mkempner(at)ajc.com.
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