The Chips That Made The Trip
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.