BONUS CONTENT: The Changing Truck Stop Consumer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. --The nation's truck stop and travel plaza operators will need to reexamine the needs of tomorrow’s customers and how to reach them.

Currently facing a shortage of drivers, the trucking industry is busy figuring out how to make the career more attractive and entice new drivers into the field. “One trend that we’ve seen is shortening of the length of a typical haul, so will there be long-haul drivers in the decades to come?” questioned Lisa Mullings, CEO and president of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), which held its annual trade show earlier this year in Nashville.

By 2025, most drivers on the road will be Millennials. So, while the average trucker now is 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it won’t be long before that trucker is a completely different consumer.

“That will be a huge shift in the types of drivers coming to our members,” said Mullings. “We have to continue to try and understand who the customer is — it is something the successful operator was doing 20 years ago and will continue to do 20 years from now.”

The Consumer Connection 

Through educational sessions, The NATSO Show 2014 offered a wealth of ideas and advice on how to understand and connect with consumers in today’s fast-changing world.

One way is through their stomachs. From preservative-free chocolate peanut butter to antelope and buffalo jerky, the gourmet food products exhibited at the show were proof that people are increasingly willing to buy new and different foods when they enter a convenience store.

In an educational session titled “The Rise of Gourmet Grab-n-Go,” Al Hebert, writer and producer of the Gas Station Gourmet website,, served up tips on how stores can find real growth through selling signature foods.

As exhibited in a slideshow of Hebert’s travels to gas stations across America, there are convenience stores making a killing on foods that one would never expect to find, but have really tickled the taste buds of area residents. For example, Peto’s Deli in Moss Bluff, La., sells 3,000 pounds of cracklins (fried pieces of pork fat) a week to the tune of $39,000. The Czech Stop in West, Texas, sells about 620 kolaches (Czechoslovakian pastries) every hour. Nathan Winkleman, the owner of Nathan’s BBQ and Buccaneer Food Store in Brenham, Texas, turned his business around by converting an 8-foot counter space into a barbecue pit.

A key part of signature-food success is finding something that will appeal to the locals who can come back for it week after week. For that, Hebert suggested reaching out to area butchers or analyzing the specific needs of the community. “Folks at the local meat counter know what the locals like,” Hebert told the audience.

The freshness factor is also a huge plus for food offerings. “People will pay extra for fresh,” he said, adding that one store he visited increased its food business by 300 percent over a 12-month period when they started using fresh potatoes for their potato salad.

Simply having the signature food item isn’t enough, though.

“If you are out on the interstate, make sure that people know you are there,” Hebert stressed, pointing out that “nine times out of 10, people have seen you there for so long that they are just used to it, and they may not even know you serve food.”

He also emphasized that social media can either be your best friend or your worst enemy, and that having an active Facebook page with daily updates is critical. Operators should list specials and have photos of their food posted, maybe even ones taken by professional photographers.

“I look at Facebook as like a drive-thru window, and a lot of people are going to go to the drive-thru,” Hebert said, noting that a website is more like a visit to the supermarket.

Another way to attract the locals is through remodeling. Interesting architecture, nice landscaping and unusual services such as dog washes can all attract regular customers. Even if there is no money for redoing the entire store, Hebert stressed the importance of having not just clean, but nice, updated restrooms. A negative restroom experience not only can have a big impact on food sales, but also could be spread far and wide since new social media apps like "Where to Wee" are making it easy for anyone to share with the world just where — and where they shouldn’t — stop to use the bathroom.

Retailers need to take a fresh look at the whole store and see how it is meeting the expectations of today’s shopper, Michael Sansolo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, discussed in another session titled “The Changing Customer: Are You Prepared?”

As he noted, consumers today aren’t the same as the consumers of just a few years ago. For one, the recession, even though it is technically over, is still impacting the way Americans shop, cook, dine and just about everything else. “There are signs of solid economic growth, but no one feels it, so there is a mentality that has been created by this Great Recession that we are going to have to cope with for a very long time,” he said.

Today's consumer is much more value-oriented. "Both value and values, as in 'what do you stand for and do I agree with you?'” Sansolo explained. “If you haven't spent the last six years (since the recession) looking for ways to say, ‘How are we presenting a better value equation to our shoppers?’ you need to start doing it tomorrow.”

Consumers today are also more diverse. He cited the Playbook for Success study published by the NACS/Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council, which states that women want to feel both safe and comfortable in convenience stores. Therefore, retailers must be more conscious of everything they are selling in the stores and what those products mean to different audiences.

Like Hebert, Sansolo also touched on the need for retailers to be completely in sync with social media if they want success for their businesses. “You cannot possibly win the customer of tomorrow if you are ignoring what is going on,” he said.

Figuring Out the Fuel Puzzle

For truck stop and travel plaza operators, another huge hurdle requiring change is the question of what fuels to offer at their stations across America in the years ahead.

In a Transport Topics special report about alternative fuels, published in December and distributed at The NATSO Show, the message is clear — diesel will still be king of the road for a very long time. As the report notes, both Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell plc predict that diesel will still be leading the pack as far out as 2040-2050.

Other fuels are making headway, though. In a “Snap Learning” session about alternative fuels at the show, Gilbarco Veeder-Root expert Bruce Sprague discussed how retailers can ready for the future. One fuel that is becoming more common, even for cars, is clean diesel.  “Fifty percent of the vehicles that used DEF [diesel exhaust fluid] last year refueled at a travel plaza,” he noted.

Another fuel that Mullings said she's often asked about is compressed natural gas (CNG). “That seems to be an issue on everyone’s mind, wondering when to do it and how to do it,” she said.

While it may seem far off, it really isn’t with vehicles coming onto the market like the 2014 Ford F-150, which is able to run on both gasoline and CNG. According to Sprague, one key downside to getting ready for CNG is the cost — around $800,000. He recommended that retailers interested in offering CNG try to find anchor customers, such as the local city buses, and create contracts for those customers to fill up exclusively and regularly at their locations.

“That's going to give you the ability to move that fuel and keep that dispenser paying for itself, as you also bring in the retail customers,” Sprague explained.

The NATSO Show 2015 will be held at The Wynn Las Vegas, Feb. 16-19.

Editor's note: Check out the April issue of Convenience Store News for more coverage of The NATSO Show 2014. A digital edition of the issue can be accessed by clicking here.

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