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Keep On Truckin'

Serving convenience to the professional truck driver.

By Pat Pape

In the unofficial "brotherhood of convenience," the unsung hero is the professional truck driver, that hard-working individual who transports tons of foods, goods and materials throughout North America to fill store shelves and satisfy consumers' needs.

In the United States, an estimated 3 million professional truck drivers log nearly 398 billion miles each year, according to the American Trucking Association, the industry's largest trade association. That means 3 million busy people are driving almost continuously, requiring regular doses of fuel and food and an occasional respite from the road.

Approximately 7,000 truck stops and travel centers in the United States and Canada serve these active customers, but there is no single monopoly on the business. Competition between major travel centers and truck stops has heated up in recent years, however. In 2010, Pilot Travel Centers LLC and Flying J Inc. merged to become the largest operator of travel centers in North America. Today, the company runs 600-plus locations. The other top truck stop operators are Love's and the TA/Petro locations.

Serving the special needs of professional drivers can be a challenge, but with good food, the right amenities and an expedient location, convenience stores can attract this loyal and profitable demographic as well.

Location, Location, Location
Time is money for truckers, and they are loath to leave the highway even for a restaurant that serves a better breakfast or for a fueling station with a special truck wash.

"Most locations [that truckers patronize] tend to be in proximity to interstates," said David Bishop, managing partner at Barrington, Illinois-based Balvor LLC, a retailing consultancy. "There are certain preconditions for making a store attractive to truckers, and one is having a site large enough to accommodate the trucks."

Finding a safe place to park a big rig seems obvious, but that has become a major issue for truckers today.

There is a critical shortage of safe parking for long-haul truck drivers," said Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association based in Grain Valley, Missouri. "In some areas of the country — especially urban areas — the need is greater."

Good Food
After a long day, road warriors want to get out of their cabs, stretch their legs and enjoy a hot meal.

"Truckers want hot foods, whether it's soup or chili," said Mark Russell, director of operations for Russell's Truck and Travel Centers, which includes two major travel centers and three grocery stores in New Mexico.

Russell's newest location features both a sit-down restaurant and Subway franchise. "Some convenience stores have Subways, and that or any type of sandwich bar is a plus," he said. "If they're in a hurry, the majority of drivers will grab a sandwich and run. Drivers, who go into our restaurant, plan that as their lunch or dinner break."

Obesity is common among professional drivers who sit all day and eat on the road. In a study of almost 3,000 truck drivers published in a 2009 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 85% were overweight and 55% were obese.

To encourage healthy eating on the go, Kwik Trip of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which operates three travel centers in addition to its chain of convenience outlets, participates in the Gundersen Lutheran Hospital's 500 Club, a healthy foods program. All Kwik Trip food items with 500 calories or less —  including sandwiches, salads, soups, yogurt and fresh fruit — are designated with a special label, making them easy to grab and go. 

"Drivers don't have to read the nutrition label," said John McHugh, spokesperson for Kwik Trip. "The products are clearly marked." Kwik Trip's partnership with the 500 Club came about after local trucking firms requested healthier foods for their drivers, but "it's been very beneficial for all our customers," McHugh added.

Russell's also offers healthy options, including yogurt and fresh fruit. "Having some type of healthy alternative is important," Russell said. "When I used to drive from Amarillo to Taos twice a week — 300 miles one way — I struggled to find something that wasn't all salt or all sugar."

Promoting fitness on the road, TravelCenters of America has opened more than 40 StayFit centers in their TA and Petro locations. Professional drivers who carry the company's driver rewards card may use the centers at no charge by swiping their cards to gain entrance. The centers offer weight training equipment, elliptical cross trainers and bikes for cardio workouts, as well as scales, workout mats and wall-mounted TVs.

 

Little Necessities
It's an unusual convenience store that offers truck repair services or a car wash large enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler. But other amenities are easier to deliver.


"Truckers are in their vehicles all day, so when they stop, it's usually for a variety of reasons," said Bishop. "Their needs are no different than what we see for a typical customer. A high-caffeine coffee would sell extremely well. It's fairly intuitive that a truck driver traveling long distances needs to be awake and aware.

"And maybe they want to freshen up, which is where showers stalls come in. Or maybe they want to relax, which makes a lounge a nice feature. Or do laundry. Many travel centers have those features," he said.

Casey's of Ankeny, Iowa, has more than 1,700 convenience stores in 14 states, plus one major travel center and three high-volume diesel operations. Brian Johnson, vice president of finance at Casey's, believes convenience stores can effectively compete with truck stops.

"We think some of the extra amenities are a plus, like the showers," he said. "We try to have them for the truck drivers. We're focusing on growing our convenience store business, but if we saw a great location — and knowing what we know about how our high-diesel stores are doing — we wouldn't be afraid to build or buy that type of store." Last year, Pilot Travel Centers announced plans to remodel 75% of its shower facilities at a cost of $49 million. Upgrades will include shower gel, larger towels, spa-style showerheads and iPod listening stations.

"One thing that convenience stores have going against them is that they don't really cater to truckers," said Russell. "They cater to travelers."

He noted that a newly opened convenience store in West Texas has six lanes of diesel, but no showers. "If they really want truck drivers to stop there, they must have things drivers need," he said. "A nice, clean shower is pretty basic. And you'd be surprised how many regular car travelers will take a shower. We provide soap and towels. We want to make them comfortable."

Russell's also attracts truckers with an extensive grocery line that includes pet care. "If they want a 20-pound bag of dog food, we carry it," he said. "You'd be surprised how many drivers are running around with their dogs, and we're not talking little dogs. We're talking big dogs, like German Shepherds. So many drivers run all the time, and in order to have any semblance of a regular life, they take their pets with them."

Saying "Thanks"
When Mark Russell's father was a professional driver years ago, he often enjoyed "trucker appreciation" events at various truck stops. While some major travel centers and even a few law enforcement organizations still host them, they are less common today.

Carrying on the tradition, Russell's holds a two-day "Trucker Appreciation" celebration every year, complete with a free meal and raffle prizes. "We've got a huge smoker, and we'll cook brisket, sausage and beans and get our vendors to help with chips and soft drinks," Russell said. "We try to get as many truckers as possible to participate. We let them know we appreciate their business."

Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association admits truck drivers have different needs than the average traveler, but both consumer groups require many of the same things.

"They simply want clean bathrooms, healthier food choices, safety and easy access from the highways," said Taylor. "Of course, lower fuel prices wouldn't hurt either."

Pat Pape spent 20 years in the corporate communications and IT departments at 7-Eleven. Currently, she is a writer and communications consultant for retailing clients and trade associations as managing partner of Brookview Advisors Inc.