CONOR SEN: How electric fuel stations spell the end of the road trip as we know it
Rapidly expanding Buc-ee’s offers an experience that might convince families to plan the holiday around the car
Carmakers are betting tens of billions of dollars on the expanding adoption of electric vehicles (EV) in the US. But a big hurdle for some consumers is the much longer time it takes to charge an EV than it does to refuel a petrol-powered car. Buc-ee’s, a Texas-based chain of fuel-station convenience stores that is expanding rapidly in the southeast, could have the answer.
Buc-ee’s offers the kind of road trip experience that might convince suburban families they do not mind waiting a little longer on a highway stop — enough so to make the switch to an EV. The key is understanding that a lot more goes into creating an appealing half-hour detour for EV charging than most existing fuel stations are able to provide.
If you are not familiar with Buc-ee’s, it is the epitome of the “everything’s bigger in Texas” mindset applied to a fuel station with an attached retail store. I stopped at one in Calhoun, Georgia, at the weekend — the chain’s second location in Georgia that opened in August — and it is the kind of thing that has to be seen to be believed.
It is more than 4,923m2 and has 120 fuel pumps and about 1,000 parking spaces. Inside you will find an array of fresh and prepared foods, from brisket sandwiches that you can watch being assembled to a large assortment of beef jerky and candied nuts, plus a variety of T-shirts, toys, home goods and gifts, some made by local craftsmen and artists. Many items are branded with the chain’s cheerful beaver mascot.
Buc-ee’s’ crown jewel are its bathrooms, which are well-lit, abundant, cleaned 24 hours a day, and by some measures are considered the best bathrooms in the US. The chain’s origins and most of its locations are in Texas, but they have recently added two locations in each of Georgia, Alabama and Florida, with new locations under construction in South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
As a first-time customer, once you get past the sheer size of a Buc-ee’s, you appreciate the business logic for the whole operation. Site selection is key; they are on major highways along popular travel routes well outside a metro area’s core to ensure both ample vehicle traffic and cheap land.
All of a sudden the charging stop becomes part of the trip to look forward to rather than an irritating chore along the way.
Drivers need to stop occasionally to fuel up and use the bathroom, but neither activity is very profitable on its own, which is where the retail store, with its more lucrative consumer goods, comes in. And to offer more than the usual roadside fare — brisket, tacos, fudge, and everything else — requires a lot of traffic to cover the higher fixed costs involved, which is where the huge size of the stores comes in.
Buc-ee’s also pays well above market rates — the location I was at started at $15 per hour for more than 200 full-time workers in sparsely populated north Georgia — ensuring a friendly, high-quality staff to serve and get people in and out of the stores.
Mass electric vehicle adoption requires more than just an ample amount of reliable charging stations around the country, it will also depend on drivers being willing to wait for a charge, a critical consideration when a charging stop might require a minimum of 30 minutes rather than five or 10. For a family with children on the way to Disney World from Atlanta, waiting half-an-hour for a volt-up at some small-time fuel station that has been retrofitted with a few chargers is the kind of experience to be avoided at all costs. But if there is a Buc-ee’s or a retail concept with a similar amount of ambition, it is a different story. All of a sudden the charging stop becomes part of the trip to look forward to rather than an irritating chore along the way.
In a future where the majority of people drive EVs, most charging is likely to be done near the home or office. Visits to fuel stations will plunge, putting many out of business, like we have seen in brick-and-mortar retail over the past 20 years as e-commerce has gained market share. Highway road trips and vehicles with limited battery ranges mean there will still be a need for fuel stations on the interstates, but it is a concept ripe for disruption.
Rather than a smattering of fuel stations and fast food restaurants every few exits, we might get large consumption-orientated developments spaced 50km to 80km apart anchored by something like a Buc-ee’s. Rather than waiting until nature calls or passengers get hungry to make a random detour, families would plan where they will stop before they leave home, choosing a location based on the amenities and experience offered. These developments will be expensive to build — an upcoming Buc-ee’s in Mississippi on Interstate 10 has a budget of $50m — but presumably they will be worth it.
Transitioning the US car fleet is not just about winning the EV or battery game; it is also about which companies create the consumer experiences that make drivers willing to wait for a highway charge. Buc-ee’s is worth following as a model for what that future might look like.
Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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