$4 to Zero in 10 Seconds

Free-gas promotion puts Philly LUKOIL station at center stage; more to come

PHILADELPHIA -- The day after some Philadelphia-area gas stations broke the $4 barrier for a gallon of regular-grade gasoline, one marketer was giving the stuff away for free. Dozens of customers spent the night at the station, sleeping in their vehicles, to gain a one-time reprieve from spending the $50 or more it costs to fill the tank.

"I heard about this on the news last night at 10:30, and I think I was here at 11:00," Brian Lonesome told CSP Daily News in the parking lot of a LUKOIL-branded Kwik Farm store in a gritty Philadelphia neighborhood, where an attendant filled the tank [image-nocss] of his black Dodge Ram pickup. "I sat in the truck and watched movies all night."

"Gas prices have started to affect my habits somewhat, but I still have places I want to go," he continued. “I 'm not going to be anyone 's hostage."

The hour-long price promotion—from 12 noon to 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday—was funded by LUKOIL and Skinny Nutritional Corp., the Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based distributor of Skinny Water, which is a zero-calorie, zero-sugar enhanced water that just recently made its debut in the convenience store channel. LUKOIL represents the first major c-store chain to carry the five-SKU product line, according to Don McDonald, CEO and president of Skinny Nutritional.

"We're doing these promotions in other markets too; Minnesota will be next," said McDonald, adding that the product had its retail unveiling last June in Target Stores. Skinny Water has appetite-curbing properties, and each of the five SKUs—Raspberry Pomegranate, Goji Fruit Punch, Passionfruit Lemonade, Peach Mango Mandarin and Pat Croce 's Acai Grape Blueberry—includes antioxidants, multivitamins and energy.

The always-energetic Croce, a Philadelphia fitness, business and publishing icon, brightened an otherwise damp and dreary day by kicking off the festivities. As the clock struck noon, he bolted from the store's entrance, leapt through a Skinny Nutritional banner and made a beeline for the store's roadway price sign. He peeled off the sign 's per-gallon gasoline prices—$3.95 for regular, $4.05 for plus and $4.15 for premium—and replaced them with zeros in a matter of 10 seconds.

"I used to pump gas in eighth grade at a station in Drexel Hill," Croce told CSP Daily News while pumping one customer's gas. "I made all my money and now here I am pumping gas again. I guess nothing has changed."

Hundreds of customers braved the gray weather and fall-like temperatures to gain not only free fuel, but also free bottles of Skinny Water and a carnival-like atmosphere. Members of the media did the same; TV news vans filled the lot of the station that's on a busy stretch of Delaware Avenue, which feeds the city 's entertainment and sports districts, and one local station's news chopper buzzed overhead like a big, metal dragonfly.

Customers such as Philadelphia native Robert Abney, who had been waiting at the store with his sister since 4:30 that morning, found it hard to contain their appreciation. "It's a big help," he said. "I have to limit my driving and travel because the prices are getting higher and higher, and there's no relief in sight. It almost makes me want to get a bus pass. This is a blessing."

LUKOIL brand manager George Wilkins said similar promotions tend to fill up the tanks of 100 to 150 cars, but it wasn 't yet clear how many free gallons the store would be pumping into customers' tanks. "This has been really good," he said. "It's the start of what's going to be a long summer of promotions. Today, this is about Skinny Water. But it's just the beginning of what we have planned for the months ahead."