By Frank Beard
IOWA—This July marked the 47th year of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—or RAGBRAI, for short. It’s the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event. As many as 15,000 weekly riders participate, and surges of single-day riders can bring totals as high as 40,000.
RAGBRAI is also a great opportunity to explore rural convenience stores. During the 530 miles I pedaled throughout the week, I visited dozens of retailers along the route.
Here are five takeaways.
1. Iowa’s community stores showed their character.
Rather than the undifferentiated independent retailers that I encountered on 2018’s RAGBRAI, this year’s route took us by a number of community stores. From well-established foodservice programs to small groceries, home goods and even movie rentals—broadband can be limited in parts of my state—these stores had a lot to offer local residents. They were also eager to make their presence known to cyclists and drive sales.
At Douds Kwik Stop in Doud, Iowa, the entire parking lot was filled with pop-up canopies selling everything from pickle pops and ice cream to chocolate milk, grilled food and, of course, plenty of beer.
The Jet Stop in Houghton, Iowa, was similarly prepared with tents selling grilled ribeye sandwiches, peanut butter energy bites, water, sports drinks and more. A large Sinclair dinosaur near the road provided a popular photo opportunity.
2. Special events are a great opportunity to promote your brand.
I was thrilled to learn from PFSbrands that they planned to station the Champs Chicken Food Truck at a retailer in Atlantic, Iowa. Many cyclists live in areas where Champs is sold at local convenience stores, and this was a great way to promote the brand. I also wanted to stop by since their chicken strips are delicious.
Unfortunately for the Champs team, a bizarre, last-minute decision was made by the local police to reroute cyclists away from the main road and onto a cluster of tiny side streets near the campground. This resulted in many complaints from confused cyclists, but it also kept most of them from passing by Olsen’s BP and the food truck.
I tried to help redirect cyclists. The station’s owner had her bicycle handy, so the two of us pedaled over to the intersection and moved one of the Olsen’s BP signs—laying it against the “road closed” barricade to indicate that yes, you could actually ride around it.
In addition to Champs, I noticed a few other familiar faces along the route. At a stop early on the first day, Jack Link’s was set up with a large tent and plenty of samples for hungry cyclists. Later, I visited a Casey’s General Store where NOS Energy Drink was stationed in front of the store, giving away free cans of each flavor. I gladly downed a sugar-free version.
3. Casey’s General Stores was ready.
RAGBRAI preparations are probably more daunting when you have multiple locations along the route, but Casey’s General Stores was ready.
Rather than conducting business as usual at their store in Anita, Iowa, for example, additional employees were on-site handing out free SPF lip balm and koozies celebrating their 50th anniversary. I took one of each. At the time of my visit, there were at least a 100 cyclists in the parking lot.
4. Don’t ignore the dollar stores.
Also competing for the role of the “community store” are dollar stores—and Dollar General, in particular. The Tennessee-based retailer built 900 new locations in 2018 and is on course for another 975 this year. I saw many Dollar General locations along the route.
Although critics frequently argue that dollar stores are perpetuating a lack of access to fresh, healthful food in rural America, Dollar General has made clear its intention to add healthier options in its stores. It’s also shown a willingness to invest in new concepts like their DGX convenience stores. If there are retailers who aren’t taking this competitive threat seriously, then they better start.
5. Give back to the community when you can.
It’s no secret that cyclists don’t like carrying loose change. Sensing an opportunity, one of the cashiers at the Cenex station in Lacona, Iowa, cut a hole in the top of an empty, plastic container and turned it into a donation box for the local VFW. Beyond being a sensible solution, it was a genuinely nice thing to do.
Given that there were at least 20 people in the store and another 50 or 60 in the parking lot when I stopped for a sugar-free energy drink, I have no doubt that she was able to make a sizable donation.
ABOUT FRANK BEARD
Frank Beard is an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy, a NACS Magazine contributor, and a speaker and advocate for the industry’s healthful offerings. You can follow Frank on Twitter at @FrankBeard.