ECONOMY

Our Electric Road Trip Future Looks a Lot Like Buc-ee’s

Automakers are betting tens of billions of dollars on the expanding adoption of electric vehicles in the U.S. But a big hurdle for some consumers is the much longer time it takes to charge an EV than it does to refuel a gasoline-powered car. Buc-ee’s Inc., a Texas-based chain of gas-station convenience stores that’s 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 don’t 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 gas stations are able to provide.

If you’re not familiar with Buc-ee’s, it’s the epitome of the “everything’s bigger in Texas” mindset applied to a gas station with an attached retail store. I stopped at one in Calhoun, Georgia, over the weekend — the chain’s second location in Georgia that opened last month — and it’s the kind of thing that has to be seen to be believed.

It’s more than 53,000 square feet — close to half the size of a typical Target — and has 120 gas pumps and around 1,000 parking spaces. Inside you’ll 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 America. The chain’s origins and most of its locations are in Texas, but they’ve 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 how the whole operation works. Site selection is key; they’re on major highways along popular travel routes well outside of a metro area’s core to ensure both ample vehicle traffic and cheap land. 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 massive 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 5 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 gas station that’s been retrofitted with a few chargers is the kind of experience to be avoided at all costs. But if there’s a Buc-ee’s or a retail concept with a similar amount of ambition, it’s 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 electric vehicles, most charging will likely be done near the home or office. Visits to fueling stations will plunge, putting many out of business, like we’ve 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 means there will still be a need for fueling stations on the interstates, but it’s a concept ripe for disruption.

Rather than a smattering of gas stations and fast-food restaurants every few exits, we might get large consumption-oriented developments spaced 30 to 50 miles 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 out where they’ll 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 $50 million — but presumably they’ll be worth it.

Transitioning America’s automobile fleet isn’t just about winning the electric vehicle or battery game, it’s 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the founder of Peachtree Creek Investments. He’s been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider and resides in Atlanta.

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