Road Trip Revelations

Summer road trips are on the horizon, and convenience stores are gearing up to be the ultimate one-stop shop.

Road Trip Revelations

April 2024   minute read

By: Sara Counihan

As summer approaches and the call of the open road beckons, road trippers across the nation are gearing up for their adventures.

Their stops at c-stores won’t be just about grabbing a quick snack; today’s travelers are seeking a comprehensive experience. They crave clean bathrooms, energizing meals, beverages and top-notch customer service.

Hop In

The mid-20th century saw the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which led to the birth of the Great American Road Trip. Now, summer road trips are deeply embedded in the nation’s culture.

According to Stephanie Stuckey, the CEO of Stuckey’s, the road trip is making a comeback. And she would know—her grandfather’s company, which is now hers, was founded on supplying travelers fuel, food and a few smiles.

“I think people are rediscovering literally their backyards and that you can take a road trip and not have to get in a woody station wagon and drive for a week,” she said.

Get Your Snacks

According to Circana’s 2023 Snacking Survey, close to half of consumers eat three or more snacks during the day.

“One trend we’ve seen and expect to see through the summer is all-day snacking,” said Casey Creegan, manager of private brands at Love’s Travel Stops. Creegan says that peach rings, beef jerky and doughnuts are popular snacks at Love’s during the summer.

According to Stuckey, travelers want a mix of tried-and-true comfort food and something new. She sees her customers pairing the company’s classic pecan log rolls with Stuckey’s new habanero cumin trail mix, for example. Travelers also want international flavors and unique taste profiles.

“[Road trips] are a time when you’re open to exploring, so you’re also open not only to exploring different places but exploring different palettes because that’s part of the experience,” she said.

According to the Frito Lay Snacking Index, 80% of respondents agree that combining multiple food products to create the perfect bite is an art form, while 65% say they have their own favorite “eccentric” snack combos. Consumers are also looking for nutritional value, with protein being the most important nutritional attribute (55%).

“We want to make sure that as the times change, we change with them.”

Some snacks are never far from customers’ minds when they’re in a convenience store. According to the most recent NACS State of the Industry Report®, salty snacks was the only category that had unit increases among the top six in-store merchandise categories in 2022. Salty snacks accounted for 4.57% of inside sales, up 0.42 points from 2021, and was the sixth largest sales contributor and fifth largest margin contributor inside the store.

Although salty snacks still have consumers’ hearts and wallets, candy is not far behind, representing 3.55% of inside sales in 2022. Alex Ringle, owner of EddieWorld in Yermo, California, is making sure that his store is fully supplied with gummy candy for the summer, and he’s also stocking up on another buzzing sweet treat—freeze-dried candy.

“[Freeze-dried candy] is the massive new trend,” he said. “It’s selling ridiculously.”

According to Stuckey, customers use their road trip as a time to be indulgent in their snacking.

“More people are looking for combos, asking ‘What am I going to buy with this and make it fun?’” she said. “So putting those two together and telling your customers, ‘You’re road-tripping this summer? Be sure to grab something sweet and […] pair it with our really good Colombian coffee,’ recognizing that when people are on road trips, it is a moment to treat themselves.”


Speaking of coffee, nearly two-thirds of Americans have a cup of Joe every day, says the American Coffee Association, and cold coffee is quickly taking center stage, growing in popularity by 45% since January 2023 and a staggering 300% since January 2016.

“As the weather warms up, travelers are looking for a refreshing caffeine kick to keep them fueled,” said Jamie King, vice president, food and deli operations at Pilot Travel Centers, which offers iced coffee and cold brew with a rotation of limited-time flavors.

And customers aren’t just reaching for coffee to get that spark of energy. They are also opting for energy drinks to give them a jolt for the road. According to a Statista survey, 33% of respondents aged 18 to 29 years old state that they drink energy drinks regularly.

“Any convenience store shelf [should] be well-stocked, not just with coffee, but also with energy drinks,” Stuckey said. “A lot of the younger consumers especially are grabbing an energy drink instead of a coffee.”

“People want to be indulgent on a road trip.”

Freshen Up

According to the 2022 NACS Convenience Voices survey, 16% of all shoppers describe their reason for visiting a c-store as “I want to use the restroom.”

“Clean restrooms are so important to a traveler, and of course, they don’t know what the restroom’s going to be like from the outside, so they’re analyzing the outer appearance of the store, and if it’s well-maintained, that’s likely a reflection of what the inside will be,” said Stafford Shurden, a frequent road tripper and restaurant owner.

Ringle takes clean restrooms so seriously that he hires staff members whose sole responsibility is to clean and maintain the restrooms, and during the busy summer travel season, he hires extra staff members for this role.

“[Clean restrooms] is the name of our game. That’s what we built our reputation on,” he said. “We built two sets of bathrooms to ensure that they’re always clean, and we rotate between the two.”

Maintaining a clean and efficient store is another key to attracting and keeping discerning consumers. According to the Convenience Voices data, c-store shoppers who noted dirty or broken equipment and didn’t make a purchase increased from 5.4% in 2021 to 7.8% in 2022.

Prior to the busy summer season, Ringle also invests in maintenance in and around the property. He paints the exterior, resurfaces sidewalks and relandscapes, among other tasks.

“I want people to feel like we’re reinvesting and keeping our property up to standard,” he said. “I think it is important to either maintain or enhance the facility, which shows the customers you’re committed to reinvesting in the business to give them a better experience.”

Along with maintenance, Ringle also makes sure his store is stocked well before road-tripping season begins. “I’m placing a lot of my orders [in the winter], and I’m actually ordering extra of my most popular items, because I know that those are the things I can’t take the chance of running out of,” he said.

“[Freeze-dried candy] is the massive new trend.”

How retailers stock the store is vital to setting the stage for increased summer sales, according to Stuckey, who emphasized the importance of catering to road trippers’ indulgent desires.

“People want to be indulgent on a road trip. It’s when you’re exploring, it’s when you’re taking time to discover new products and new flavors. So be cognizant of that and build your store displays around it. ‘Are you discovering America? Well, discover our snack aisles while you’re at it,’” she said.

Grab a Bite

As the self-proclaimed Gas Station Gourmet, Al Hebert has visited hundreds of convenience stores in search of the best food. He says fresh food is the best, but that fresh food also needs to be convenient, which is why he recommends “food on a stick.”

“If you put your chicken tender on a stick, you’re going to sell more,” he said. “I’ve seen all kinds of c-store foods on a stick. It makes life easier for the traveler.”

What Road Trippers Want

Here are tips and tricks from savvy retailers on catering to summer road trippers.

Casey Creegan, Love’s Travel CentersRetailers should expand their offerings to summer road trippers beyond just food and beverages. “[Our] customers are also really enjoying cooling gel neck pillows.”

Jamie King, Pilot Travel CentersConvenience is key on the road, so make sure there are enough quick food options for customers. “We have plenty of grab-and-go hot and cold items, including freshly cut fruit, sweet and salty snacks, and all the coffee and cold beverages a road tripper needs.”

Al Hebert, Gas Station Gourmet

Bibs should be available at convenience stores for customers eating on the move, and it’s a thoughtful touch much appreciated by parents.

Alex Ringle, EddieWorldDiscover the newest food and merchandise trends by exploring TikTok. “I feel like TikTok is definitely becoming a leading indicator of what’s coming and what is relevant.”

Stafford Shurden, Gas Station Tailgate Review and restaurant ownerDon’t be afraid to stretch the limits of your foodservice offer. “Any gas station that serves hot food has the same kitchen I have [in my restaurant]. I do wish that some owners wouldn’t mentally limit themselves. You can literally do anything.”

Like Hebert, Shurden is also in pursuit of the best gas-station cuisine and has filmed dozens of YouTube videos under the moniker Gas Station Tailgate Review. He also says that fresh, portable snacks are key.

“If you can sell someone a candy bar at your register, it makes more sense to sell them a freshly baked cookie from your kitchen instead,” he said. “Your customers can get a candy bar anywhere, so offer them something fresh and unique to your store.”

Hit the Road

Convenience stores are no longer just pit stops; they are evolving into one-stop shops that cater to the needs and desires of modern road trippers, and the industry has a unique opportunity to play in this space.

“Convenience stores [should be] the one-stop shop,” Stuckey said. “We don’t want our consumers having to go down the street to another store to get what they want. We want them to be able to pull over, fuel up, get their snacks and drinks and anything else they might need.”

By understanding what road trippers want and expect—whether it’s a diverse selection of snacks, energizing beverages, or quick and efficient service—retailers can position themselves as indispensable allies in the quest for the perfect summer adventure.

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