The death and rebirth of the gas station

Gas stations are unique places. They sit at the intersection of retail, hospitality, energy, and mobility. But the truth is, without serious innovation, gas stations will end up like deserted Wild West Main Streets. Tumbleweed and everything.

Ben Moncrieffe

Account Director and Automotive Lead at C Space

Ben Moncrieffe is a C Space Account Director and Automotive Lead, EMEA. He leads our automotive practice known as auto+, focused on supporting our automotive, mobility, energy, retail and insurance clients navigate the changing automotive landscape, all from the customers’ perspective. Ben joined C Space as an intern in 2012. After landing impact-after-impact for his clients, he became a seasoned and celebrated consultant, eventually being shortlisted for the prestigious MRS Newcomer of the Year Award in 2016. Beyond that, he’s also a petrolhead, cocktail connoisseur, Caterham racer, chocolate hater and part-time C Space DJ.

Gas stations and interstate rest stops are at an existential crossroads. Why do they exist? Fuel and rest. Fuel for the car we’re driving, fuel for our bodies and minds, and rest if we’re doing a long journey. (Oh, and bathroom breaks.) But what happens when we don’t need to stop as frequently as we do today?

Gas stations can’t rely solely on our need to stop. Rather, they’ll have to inspire us to.

That’s because technology is changing our mobility. Electric cars are becoming common, and battery technology continues to improve. Sales of new electric cars worldwide surpassed one million units in 2017 – a record volume. This represents a growth in new electric car sales of 54% compared with 2016. Predictions are that sales will increase to 11 million in 2025 and then to 30 million in 2030. Even Shell’s CEO announced last year that the next car he purchases will be electric.

Eventually, we will move up the autonomous technology levels, darting through cities and covering vast distances in our driverless cars. But in the near term, we need to consider the growth of electric vehicles, and the implications for charging them. Infrastructure is nowhere near where it needs to be yet, but new charging points are popping up at gas stations, be that one of the many types of public charging services, or the Tesla-style Supercharger stations, which charge your battery in about 30 minutes. Longer term, we have to plan for technology improving at a rate of knots, both in terms of battery capacity (and, as a result, range) as well as charging infrastructure (and, as a result, charging time).

The big boys have already started to adapt, with Shell, BP, and Total all investing in or purchasing electric charging businesses. With the increased time a driver may need to spend at a gas station, you have to ask whether people will want to hang around one for an extended period of time. Drivers will likely find more desirable places to go and wait, or they may just decide to charge at their destination.

So, with “fuel” or energy no longer a reason to use a gas station, you need to rethink its purpose and what it can offer. Right now, most gas stations are not the kinds of places you want to go to eat and shop, unless you find yourself in an out-of-town outlet village like Bicester or are lured by the Great American Roadtrip kitsch of truck stops like Iowa 80. As failing retailers like Toys ‘R Us, Jessops, and Sears have discovered, it’s no longer enough to just be a legacy “shop.” Retail environments – even gas station retailers – need to be must-visit destinations that offer more in terms of utility, entertainment, and, above all, an outstanding customer experience.

One solution: add hospitality to the mix. Hotels – ripe places to capture customers looking for something to do – are already catching on to this. Hilton announced a partnership with Tesla way back in 2015 and continues to outfit more of their locations with charging stations. Other hotel chains have followed suit, and it seems like a no-brainer for customers to plan ahead, book a nice hotel away from the highway to use a gym, unwind at a spa, enjoy a meal, or even stay the night. “Little America” in Wyoming offers a 500-acre hotel with a golf course, swimming pool, fitness center, and business center – which is starting to feel more like something a major hotel chain could offer.

Gas stations are unique places. They sit at the intersection of retail, hospitality, energy, and mobility. All four are experiencing disruption. It’s no longer enough for a store, a gas station, a hotel to just offer one thing. So, the experience has to provide additional benefits beyond the one thing – to pull customers in and offer them reasons to keep them there. Not just a drive-thru experience, but a drive-to experience.

If you’re driving across the Midwestern plains of the United States, you should take exit 284 off of Interstate 80. It’s here, 25 miles west of the Mississippi River, in Walcott, Iowa, where you’ll find the world’s largest truck stop, simply called Iowa 80.

Some say Iowa 80 Truckstop is like a small city, others have likened it to a trucker’s Disneyland, all can agree it is a place not to be missed,” proclaims the Iowa 80 website. While it’s not as glamorous as Disney, Iowa 80 is a destination for truckers and roadtrippers – complete with movie theater, a truck showroom, a barber shop, restaurants, a dentist, shower facilities, a laundromat, even a “dogomat” where your pup can get a bath.

While megalithic gas stations like Iowa 80 are designed for the distinct needs of those traveling America’s vast highway system, they also represent the direction all gas stations might need to take for future survival. Because the truth is, without serious innovation, gas stations will end up like deserted Wild West Main Streets. Tumbleweed and everything.

Designing for that experience will mean reframing the question, Why do we need to stop? to What inspires us to stop? I don’t anticipate (or desire) all gas stations to turn into new-wave examples of Iowa 80, but there is an opportunity to think about how to move the Main Street onto the Interstate. With autonomous cars on the rise, it’s possible we may spend far more time in our cars. That means we’ll be on the roads more. That’s more opportunity.

The big energy providers need to be thinking about the implications, designing gas stations into retail or experiential sites that cater to drivers’ “fuel” needs in more ways than one. If nothing changes, then I think the days of the gas station as we know it are running on empty.

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