Nearly 60 years ago, in June 1964, the operator of a convenience store in Westminster, Colorado, Roscoe John, flipped the switch to activate the first self-service gasoline pumps in the United States. This groundbreaking innovation forever changed the way customers access and purchase fuel. Only 124 gallons of gas were sold that day, but it marked the beginning of a new era in fuel selling, where customers could fuel their vehicles themselves at remote access pumps.

According to state fire codes, it was also forbidden in the majority of the nation, and it was unprecedented to pump your own fuel in 1964. (Currently, self-service is still not allowed in New Jersey and Oregon, as well as in various towns throughout the country, especially in Massachusetts.)

The time in 1964 was ripe and fertile for fueling possibilities, but self-service didn’t exist until 1916. Instead of handing over a list to a clerk, customers picked items themselves at the first self-serve grocery store, where the norm for self-service hardly existed back then.

“There is growing recognition in the petroleum industry that the auto has revolutionized all retailing—except the retailing of the gas station! It is even seeping into the awareness of this industry that car traffic is now shopping traffic, and that more cars, driven by men as well as women, stop at gas stations every day than drive up to any other outlet, including perhaps the food outlet! No other retailer so completely wastes such a remarkable traffic count as does the gas station!” —Legendary advertising and marketing executive E.B. Weiss in the 1964 book, Management and the Marketing Revolution

Before the 1960s, Gas stations had experimented with self-serve but the first self-service gasoline station in Los Angeles, opened by Frank Urich in 1947, featured rows of gleaming pumps and girls on roller skates who zoomed around to manually turn back each pump to zero for new customers and collected money. These early self-serve stations ran on a mechanical computer that allowed attendants to reset the dispensers and collect money as well.

Some unbranded stations switched to this type of self-service for gasoline, in order to compete with other major oil companies by promoting clean restrooms and unique gimmicks such as salt and pepper shakers shaped like gasoline pumps, in an effort to retain loyal customers to specific fuel brands.

John Roscoe, a visionary man, initially had no interest in remote access self-service gasoline, but one day, Herb Timms, a man he recalls, stopped by with a box he had created. This box would enable an attendant inside the store to dispense gasoline at the pumps. It was in 1957 when John Roscoe opened his first convenience store in Denver. By 1964, he had expanded his business and was operating a chain of 12 stores in the area.

One of John Roscoe’s Big Top stores before fueling was added (circa early 1964)

Roscoe stated, “Thankfully, my financial advisor was acquainted with Herb and he persuaded me to test out his creation; however, I was initially hesitant.”

In this 2011 NACS video, Roscoe discussed this and other advancements. By July 1964, the stores were averaging 4,500 gallons in sales per week and Roscoe promptly implemented distant fueling at two additional stores. The business flourished.

Roscoe stated that the facility was already in place, which was crucial for the self-serve convenience store industry. By eliminating labor costs, we successfully transitioned from full-serve gas stations to the gasoline business with an investment of $10,000. We generated approximately $100 in pre-tax margin dollars per day and maintained an average of $300 in daily convenience store sales. Nevertheless, by selling 1,000 gallons of gasoline with a 10-cent margin per gallon, it was possible to double the profit margin without significantly increasing expenses.

The pre-tax net margins for gasoline are around 15 cents per gallon, taking into account credit card fees and expenses. However, the gross margins on gasoline today, including expenses, are much higher at approximately 30-40 cents per gallon. In the 1960s, gas was priced with 10-cent margins, similar to other retail margins, ranging from 20 to 30 cents per gallon.

Benedetti Bob, who is responsible for the National Fire Protection Association’s project code for flammable liquid, stated, “Most state laws had provisions that forbade self-serve dispensers in service stations.” Benedetti Bob also mentioned, “Regulatory changes were necessary to expand remote self-service gasoline.”

Benedetti stated, “however, that never came to fruition,” some speculated there would be a rise in the frequency of mishaps or blazes at fuel stations with autonomous dispensers. Over time, 48 states modified their fire regulations to permit autonomous dispensers.

Fred Lowder, who shared ownership of the Jiffy convenience store franchise with his father, expressed, “The notion that customers would be unwilling to refuel their own vehicles and that certain convenience store proprietors found the idea absurd was completely contrary to conventional wisdom.” The convenience store industry was slow to embrace the concept, even after state laws had changed. These businesses were hesitant to adapt.

Roscoe offered to speak about his success on a panel called “Profit for New Merchandising Concepts” at the Annual Meeting NACS 1964, encouraging others to join the self-serve trend.

Roscoe expressed, “No one found gasoline fascinating. The meat market proprietor fielded all the questions from the audience following the presentations. I was accompanying an individual [on the panel] who managed a meat market in Portland, Oregon.”

Said Lowder, who assumed the presidency of NACS in 1966, “John would distribute a printout of his gasoline volume and that caught my interest.” Roscoe’s fuels sales did, whereas the panel presentation failed to capture the attention of store operators.

Roscoe, who journeyed across the nation to generate interest in the technology for which he obtained a license to sell, expressed, “The reception, on the whole, was remarkably sluggish, hence a significant portion of convenience store proprietors lacked the funds to invest $10,000 in the apparatus.” “It likely took the industry a minimum of 10 years before widespread acceptance was achieved.”

“And the realization dawned on them that they couldn’t operate a convenience store without gasoline,” Lowder concurred. “It was a gradual development for the industry to ultimately comprehend that it took over ten years for the critical moment in self-service to occur.”

The entire marketing system eventually underwent a change, as the convenience and advantage of self-service gasoline became strong. Many jobbers in the oil industry who were running gasoline stations saw the economic advantage and began to adopt self-service convenience and gasoline service. However, Roscoe stated, “Major oil companies initially resisted the need to change their operations and adopt self-service gasoline.”

“Self-service will grow. It won’t take over all gas retailing—not at all. But it will gobble up a sizable percentage—and it will compel the gas station, finally, to become a modern retailer.” —Advertising executive E.B. Weiss in a 1966 article in Gasoline Retailer.

The gasoline shortage in 1973 and 1974 was aided by the implementation of self-service, which further intensified the trend. In response to the long queues, California passed a legislation mandating all gas stations to display price signs. Jerry Cummings, a former oil executive at Robinson Oil Corp in California, commented, “Customers had to endure lengthy waits in line without knowing the price until they reached the pump. They were then left with no choice but to purchase the gas or repeat the process at another station.” The introduction of price signs made gasoline more uniform, thus greatly benefiting the self-service concept.

Customers flocked to convenience stores for their refueling needs because these stores were able to offer unbranded gasoline at a lower price compared to the branded, full-service stations. On the contrary, the public embraced the idea right from the beginning. A Big Success Among Consumers.

Roscoe said that the public is interested in lower prices and immediately went to a self-service gasoline station that typically sells gasoline for 10 cents per gallon discount, translating to a savings of 20 cents per gallon. “That was significant enough to bring people in,” he added.

In the early days, retailers didn’t necessarily drive profits as customers increasingly attracted to thin margins. However, gasoline sales certainly drove traffic.

“If you decide to go into the combination food and gasoline business, you’ll find that gasoline will be a small part of your margin…You’ll need to make 80% or better of your total margin dollars from selling things other than gasoline.” —John Roscoe in a 1976 speech to oil executives. Gasoline today only accounts for about 35% of margin dollars.

At the beginning of Pump-at-the-Pay technology, Negley Scott, the global director for product management, stated that one of the biggest challenges was how to seamlessly incorporate the convenience of self-service payment.

Negley stated, “The resolutions needed to be flexible or adjusted for a broad spectrum of systems governing the machinery at stations.” Prior to pay-at-the-pump gaining significant popularity, engineers had to determine how to ensure the compatibility of the card readers with various networks and point-of-sale systems. During the mid-1980s, credit card readers were incorporated into pump dispensers, which served as the precursors to the present-day pay-at-the-pump technology.

Roscoe stated that they made it easier to fill up by adding the option to pay with credit cards later on. They adopted a similar technology used in mass transit rapid transit pumps, where they installed card readers and developed a pre-paid gas card. Western, a vendor, had debuted it in select stores in Benicia, California in the early 1980s.

Negley stated, “However, the results were contrary to expectations: Sales actually increased as a result of providing a better in-store experience without gas-only customers causing congestion in the queue.” “Certain individuals believed it was an unintelligent concept as customers would no longer enter the store, potentially leading to a decline in in-store sales.” Nevertheless, not all individuals within the industry welcomed the idea of pay-at-the-pump.

Initially, the marketers of fuel were reluctant to install technology at the pump to provide merchandise store-in because they were concerned about losing profit inside traffic. However, Bob Renkes, the general counsel and vice executive president for the Petroleum Equipment Institute, thought that they probably gained from it and didn’t fear the loss of profit.

Negley expressed, “Pay-at-the-pump has accomplished that.” “Purchasing gasoline is already an anxiety-inducing transaction, so any actions a merchant can take to alleviate stress is beneficial.”

Looking ahead to the present day, it is undeniable that self-service dispensers located remotely have revolutionized the gasoline sector. “It permanently altered the convenience store industry,” Roscoe stated. “It enabled convenience store operators to establish themselves in more favorable locations and enhance their overall appeal.” A Revolutionary Technology.

One of those innovative shops is still in business in the metropolitan Denver region.

Negley agreed that we have a challenge to meet in offering more security for consumers who pay-at-the-pump. He also mentioned that the evolution of payment will only be a change in the place where debit or credit cards are used, as other technologies and contactless payment methods, such as mobile phones, might replace them. However, self-service gasoline dispensers will still be a part of the industry for years to come.

The possibilities are remarkable. By the end of the decade, the first automated teller machine (ATM) was introduced, and 7-Eleven introduced self-serve fountain soda and self-serve, to-go coffee in the mid-1960s. Self-service has continued to transform the retail industry fifty-six years later. Consumers can now order groceries online and schedule home deliveries. Deposits can be made into checking accounts by scanning paper checks using mobile banking apps. Today, groceries can also be ordered by scanning Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) codes displayed on digital signs in train terminals.

Did you know that the introduction of self-serve gas stations has changed the way customers interact with machines? For example, at a self-checkout store, customers can scan and select their own items without any face-to-face interaction. Similarly, at a hotel or airport, travelers can confirm check-ins, book online hotel rooms, and order airplane tickets without having to speak to a staff member. This shift towards remote interactions has become the norm for today’s typical travelers. Can you imagine a world without the internet? It’s hard to believe how much bigger and more advanced our lives have become because of it.

The convenience store sector and convenience have undergone a transformation, primarily due to the implementation of self-service which accelerates transaction times, expands ordering choices, and aids in cost reduction.

The introduction of self-serve fueling in 1964 revolutionized the industry, fueling a number of events before and after its introduction, and contributing to its potential growth.

1920s: There were a few coin-operated stations available, like Gasamat stations in the Rockies, which remained in operation until the 1960s.

The California fire marshal deemed the practice a fire hazard and put a stop to it, but in 1930, the 20-store Hoosier Petroleum Co. Attempted self-serve fueling.

In 1939, the Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. Invents the shut-off valve, which is the precursor of modern cut-off valves.

The self-serve concept began in the Southeast and the Southwest, mainly in California, with several other independent stations following suit. In order to meet the high demand, the supply was constantly replenished, giving the impression that empty tankers were driving up to the station, which added to the excitement, according to Urich. Within the first month, Urich’s station managed to sell over 500,000 gallons. With the slogan “Save 5 cents, serve yourself, why pay more?”, Urich’s station achieved this remarkable feat. In 1947, Frank Urich opened the first modern self-serve gas station at the intersection of Jilson and Atlantic in Los Angeles, California.

In 1957, the first automatic shut-off valve latch/hold-open was approved by the General Storage of Flammable Liquids Committee Sectional of NFPA, later by UL (Underwriters Laboratories). This allowed attendants to continue fueling while other drivers took care of checking the oil or washing the windshield, reducing the likelihood of spills if fuel was pumped by untrained drivers.

Supertron units, which are operating in seven states, allow retailers to sell fuel at lower prices compared to other stations, typically two to four cents less. In addition, at island fueling stations, attendants are required to reset the pumps after each fueling and also collect the money. Previously, the convenience store at Big Roscoe’s John, located in Westminster, Colorado, used to average nearly 500 gallons per day, per month. On June 10, 1964, the Remote Station Control system was installed at Supertron, marking its presence in the market.

Due to state fire regulations, numerous prominent oil corporations express their willingness to experiment with self-service, typically utilizing coin-operated systems, but are unable to do so legally in 1965.

Many local laws also forbid it, and only 17 states permit customers to fuel their own vehicles. After conducting the test to gather additional data, American Oil Co. (Later known as Amoco) shut down both locations where the experiment took place. The estimated count of self-serve stations in 1966 is believed to be between 500 and 1,000 sites, primarily in the Western region.

The first self-serve unit opens in New York at a Clay Oil station in Poughkeepsie, New York, coincidentally next to a firehouse.

Approximately half of the stations in Stockholm, Sweden, are self-service, and there are 2,000 self-service stations in West Germany.

The Supreme Court of New York ruled in March 1967 that self-serve fueling ordinances, which bar local rules, are illegal. This decision paves the way for other states to similarly eliminate full-service mandates, in a case relating to the city of Yonkers prohibiting self-serve fueling unless the fueler had a certificate of fitness.

British Petroleum declares its plan to establish facilities within the city. The City of London (U.K.) Grants authorization for unattended refueling in 1968.

According to the Colorado Petroleum Marketers Association, twenty-three states still prohibit self-service.

In May 1969, a revision to the National Fire Protection Code was clarified through an amendment at its annual meeting.

1969: Humble Oil & Refining Co. Initiates a multi-state initiative to test self-service.

In the Western and Southwestern regions, approximately 75% of these sites are operational. The number of stations increased from less than 1,500 in 1967 to 2,500 in 1968, and further rose to 4,600 by 1969, as reported by Dresser-Wayne. Currently, these self-service stations are still in operation as of 1970.

In the United States, it is estimated that there are 7,500 self-serve operations out of the total 220,000 stations. In 1972, the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Fire Commission created a lot of controversy by recommending the allowance of self-serve at all of the city’s 7,000 stations.

Today, approximately 80% of fuel is sold in convenience stores. In 1983, the percentage quadrupled to about 52% in that decade. In 1973, only 13% of gas was sold in convenience stores. However, the introduction of self-serve gas stations led to a significant increase in sales. This led consumers to find ways to save on their fill-ups by using self-serve options. The oil price shock in 1973 caused oil prices to nearly quadruple and Arab nations established strict supply quotas. In October 1973, OPEC, including the United States, announced an oil embargo against countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.