The Chips That Made The Trip

A driving excursion to the Southeast proved that “impulse squared” is alive and well
southport go gas

Our reporter, Steve Dwyer, chronicals his trip across the country, convenience store by convenience store, including this GoGas in Southport, NC.

In mid-September, I drove 1,012 miles from Chicago to the North Carolina coast for a 3.8-ounce bag of Utz potato chips. It was an impulse purchase.

It’s approximately 2,500-miles, round-trip from Chicago to the Southeast. I picked up a few items one night at a Southport, N.C., Murphy Express convenience store. It was there in that line, in a salty-snacks display, that I saw a brand I had not seen before in the flesh: Utz potato chips.

Maybe the allure was the script on the bag proclaiming, “The Crab Chip with Chesapeake Bay Crab Seasoning.” Maybe it was the fact I had Utz burned into my memory bank from watching everything from Yankee’s games on ESPN to “The Office” sitcom on TV.

The impulse purchase had another strong motivator: I can’t get Utz chips in my Chicago-area c-store or supermarket. Traveling can bring out an extra impulse-buying trigger in consumers—something called “impulse squared.” At home, impulse buying is X but on the road it reaches a higher plane. It’s a supply and demand issue.

People are obsessed with brands not sold in their local market.

Travelers to Chicago have a burning desire for Chicago’s own Jay’s Potato Chips and Lou Malnati’s pizza. And we know how folks would have given their left arm in the 1970s for a 12-pack of Coors beer before it gained national distribution.

My c-store impulse opportunities didn’t end with Utz. One that I resisted was plopping down $12.99 for a sharp-looking purple and orange Virginia Tech ball cap at a Pilot Travel Center in Lambsburg, Va. I came this close to that purchase—music to retailers’ ears.

The takeaway from this road-trip narrative is this: Imagine if c-store retailers had a better inside track on the tendencies of travelers—the ones obsessed with regional, iconic brands like Utz chips. Ones like me who bought a bag even though there were plenty of salty snacks back at the hotel. People get geeked at the thought of buying brands they can’t get locally. It’s a goldmine for retailers if they can crack the code.  

In my case, the scale for impulse buying had one wrinkle: I own a Toyota Prius, and you might understand what that means: an otherworldly MPG performance, which translates to fewer fuel stops and less spent per fill-up. 

To put things in perspective, the 2,500-mile excursion included six fueling stops for a total expense of $115.  

During the trip, I spent $21.55 at Peg’s Pit Stop in Corinth, Ky., a small-size c-store near Lexington that had a country store feel to it. An Exxon Sky Mart ($21.33 fill-up) near the ocean at Holden Beach, N.C., was a quick trip for gas with no inside visit. The Murphy Express in Southport—home of the Utz impulse purchase—saw a $24.93 fuel expense on a $2.05 per gallon pump price. Later that day, a 600-mile one-day trip meant stopping twice for fuel—the second time at a Citgo in eastern Tennessee in the rugged Smoky Mountains ($15.85 fill-up, friendly staff, nice store plan-o-gram).

This Southeast trip was extremely economical, and c-store visits were far fewer than they were back in the day. No doubt, Prius owners miss a few c-store visits on a lengthy trip, and retailers miss a few impulse sales.

The best way to offset the loss: Prominently display those Utz chips to reel in travelers like me, who will gladly buy a bag or two (or three) in a heartbeat.