By: Jeff Lenard, Contributing Author
Recent data supports what we already know: People love road trips. More than 80% of American drivers intend to take a road trip this summer, according to a consumer survey conducted by the National Association of Convenience Stores. The top reasons are that road trips are fun and enjoyable, which supports why more than two in three Americans (68%) say they are hitting the road to make great memories.
Ironically, the most famous road trip in history was nothing but terrible memories. Those memories were so profound that they eventually revolutionized the U.S. highway system, reshaped the American housing landscape, and turned a small, under-appreciated retail channel into the largest in the country.
The story dates back more than a century to 1919, a year after the end of World War I. The U.S. War Department decided to roll out a 3,200-mile cross-country caravan from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to test the growing capabilities of the U.S. auto industry and the roads that were central to continued growth. A young Army lieutenant, Dwight Eisenhower, thought the trip would be a “genuine adventure” and signed up. It was anything but a positive experience. The cross-country journey was a horrible 62-day slog full of broken-down vehicles, dead-end roads, mud, quicksand, and overall misery. But, oh those memories!
Eisenhower stored the memories of that miserable adventure. When he became the President of the United States nearly 40 years later, he created the country’s interstate system by signing the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which helped ensure future road trips were much more pleasant experiences. More importantly, it reshaped convenience and mobility.
The impact of the Federal-Aid Highway Act was almost immediate. Better roads quickly expanded the suburbs. A wave of motorists began traveling from suburbs to cities and back again for work. There also was an increase in truck drivers, salespeople, and families on vacation driving from city to city. Gas stations popped up along the roads and highways to meet the needs of increased mobility.
Gas stations were so essential to America’s new-found mobility in the 20th Century that one could argue they helped shape the roads. Suburbs helped shape infrastructure, as well.
New houses and developments appeared at a much faster rate than large-format retail, like grocery stores. That created a temporary imbalance; grocery stores in settled neighborhoods were suddenly less convenient for new developments, and there weren’t many convenient options for food. At the time, convenience stores were considered somewhat of a novelty, with only a few hundred stores scattered in warm weather locations. That was about to change.
As more people moved to the suburbs, these smaller convenience store formats were quickly becoming essential for the 9-to-5 commuters. People could easily pick up milk, bread and eggs on their way home, and the shopping experience was faster than at grocery stores. Convenience stores also needed fewer employees to stay open and had the luxury of being able to stay open later—from 7 am to 11 pm—while most stores closed at 5 pm.
Consumers embraced the ease and speed of these smaller retail outlets, and convenience stores quickly expanded. The first convenience stores in cold-weather markets popped up in Denver and in Washington, D.C., in 1957. The stores, usually called “drive-ins” or “bantams” got their name that year, defining not what they looked like but what they offered: convenience.
After speeding up the grocery shopping experience, next up for the convenience store industry was fueling. This was back when gas stations were full-service, but that too was about to change.
In 1964, a convenience store visionary named John Roscoe, who had given the industry its name and had opened those first cold-weather convenience stores year earlier, had an even bigger idea: self-serve gasoline. He introduced a new labor-saving technology that allowed drivers to pump their fuel without relying upon an attendant. The technology shaved a penny or so off the cost of full-service gas that then cost 30 cents per gallon but no doubt was “too high” in drivers’ minds then, too.
Convenience and mobility are linked because of Roscoe. Motorists running errands around town or traveling home for the holidays could get in and out of a gas station faster. This cultural shift also came at a time when the gas station industry was booming. By 1970, there were more than 200,000 gas stations in America.
It took a decade for self-serve fueling to catch on, especially since fire codes or other laws prohibited it,and still do in New Jersey and Oregon, although record high gas prices this spring may lead to change. The gas price shocks related to the 1973-74 oil crisis finally pushed more states to loosen restrictions on fueling, and price-sensitive drivers flocked to self-service options.
The growth of self-serve at the pump eventually led to other self-serve innovations, this time related to food and beverages. By the mid-1960s, 7-Eleven introduced self-serve coffee and fountain soda, and by decade’s end the first ATM was introduced. Today, apps allow consumers to order groceries online and schedule at-home deliveries.
It could be argued that these conveniences, and the self-service of the internet itself, were facilitated by the growth of the highway system. After all, remember what the internet was originally called in the 1990s? Yep, the information superhighway.
The highway system also revolutionized what convenience stores sold. In those early years, they sold almost exclusively packaged items that had a long shelf life, mostly because stores would receive deliveries once every week or two. Perishable items simply weren’t an option, and the upscale food offerings that you see in convenience stores today would not be possible without a highway system.
Today, it’s common to see fresh food, deli offers, and other perishables in convenience stores. Even sushi! Foodservice accounts for nearly one in four dollars spent within the channel and is the fastest growing in-store segment within the industry. Remember Clark Griswold saying in the 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, “I’m so hungry I could eat a sandwich from a gas station”? The joke doesn’t work for anyone whose been to a convenience store over the past few years.
The crossroads of mobility and food gave America one of its most iconic brands.
An entrepreneur in Kentucky who owned three properties that offered fuel, lodging, and food, specializing in fried chicken, was forced to close his operations after highway bypasses rendered his locations useless. So, Harland Sanders decided to focus on his recipe of seven herbs and spices and launched an empire: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Others saw the highway system as a way to expand. Stuckey’s, famous for its pecan log roll, grew from small, roadside stands to hundreds of larger stores that sold Texaco fuel. After downsizing due to a series of acquisitions, Stuckey’s rebounded over the past few years under new leadership, with a focus on celebrating—you guessed it—the great American road trip.
Today, there are more than 148,000 convenience stores in the United States. There are more convenience stores than grocery, drug, dollar, and club stores combined. They sell an estimated 80% of the fuel purchased in the country and despite a decrease in consumption over the past 5 years, fuel continues to attract customers.
Big changes are again afoot that could reshape fueling. More than 60 years after President Eisenhower created the interstate system, the Biden administration is focusing on its own vision and reimagining how vehicles are fueled. The administration set a goal to have a national network of 500,000 public electric vehicle charging stations by 2030.
There are big issues to address that would make this goal a reality. How can charging locations, like convenience stores, affordably acquire electricity and charge the customer for it? Will new charging locations shape America’s roads as gas stations did last century? How will vehicle production ramp up to create demand for charging, when less than 1% of the 276 million registered vehicles in the U.S. are EVs and only 3% of new vehicles sales are EVs? How can charging times continue to increase? And how will road taxes, currently funded by gas excise taxes, be assessed for vehicles that use roads but don’t contribute the taxes that go toward road construction, maintenance and repairs?
The biggest factor of the Biden administration’s charger goal is whether it will make life more convenient. President Eisenhower’s grand vision was ultimately about making it convenient to travel the country, whether for commerce or for fun.
Reshaping the fueling infrastructure will need to embrace convenience. It will be interesting to see if this ambitious goal can be met, and which innovations will have a bigger impact on our everyday lives. Who could honestly say they saw all the amazing possibilities that were unlocked from the highway system?