Introducing Winter Drive Season

By Jeff Lenard   read

Wherever your customers go, there will 55 million of them on the road this Thanksgiving, and tens of millions more over Christmas and New Year’s.

November 20, 2023

turkey-dinner.jpgRemember three years ago when Covid effectively cancelled big holiday gatherings and people celebrated only within their select “bubble” or via Zoom get-togethers? While Covid is not entirely in the past, it looks like travelers are putting it literally in the rearview mirror as they hit the road over the six-week winter-drive season, which kicks off with Thanksgiving.

The winter-drive season is about half as long as the 14-week summer drive season that runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But both feature three peak drive holidays where people are on the road and likely stopping for fuel, food and clean restrooms. How much they spend on the road will be dictated by how consumers feel about their finances, and how retailers can present a great experience that keeps long-distance travelers coming back, whether on the return trip home or future trips.

Let’s start with finances.

This year, AAA projects that 55.4 million Americans will head 50 miles or more from home over the Thanksgiving holiday travel period traveling via planes, trains or automobiles, the third-highest total since AAA first tracked holiday travel plans in 2000. Most Americans—more than 49 million—will hit the road to travel to their Thanksgiving holiday destinations, an increase of 1.7% compared to 2022.

Gas prices could be playing a role in the expected increase in travel. On the Friday before Thanksgiving, gas prices stood at $3.33, a full 40 cents lower than a year prior. Gas prices have steadily declined over nearly three months. And as we all know, falling gas prices makes drivers happy and more likely to shop, your store.

“Drivers this Thanksgiving can expect cheaper gas prices,” said Andrew Gross, AAA spokesperson. “Ten states now have sub $3 a gallon averages, and more will join soon. So savvy drivers will find savings on their way to a turkey dinner this year.”

So, when are people hitting the road? The busiest day on the road, and therefore a busy day in convenience stores, will be Nov. 22 between 2:00 pm–6:00 pm, according to INRIX. The group says average travel times could be as much as 80% higher than normal in some metro areas. Meanwhile the best time to travel if you want that turkey leg is before 11:00 am, or wake up early on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 23) and hit the road before 10:00 am. 

Speaking of turkey, the American Farm Bureau Federation says that the average price for a 16-pound turkey is down 5.6% from last year to $27.35 ($1.71 per pound). Overall, the average cost for a Thanksgiving feast for 10, which hit a record high in 2022, is $61.17.

No Covid restrictions, more travelers and lower gas and turkey prices. Sounds like your stores will be busy. Here’s how some c-stores are generating holiday excitement to maximize the likelihood of sales:

Pumpkin spice everything aside, Wawa is already serving the best parts of Thanksgiving dinner on a hoagie roll—and in a bowl. The Hot Turkey Gobbler Bowl starts with a base of mac and cheese, roasted veggies, hot turkey, and cranberry sauce.

After turkey comas wear off, Giant Eagle announced Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals at a time where some grocery customers may not believe the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner will be any less expensive than last year. The specials will run across the company’s brands, including GetGo Café + Market convenience stores, which will offer free coffee on November 24. There is also a holiday-themed sandwich known as The Pilgrim.

Convenience stores also destinations for holiday gifts. Let’s start with the Hess Toy Truck, which was introduced in 1964. Rumor has it that in the weeks before Christmas, the Hess Toy Truck would outsell Barbie dolls two to one in markets where it was available. Take that, No. 1 movie of the year!

As more people hit the road during winter-drive season, they know c-stores have plenty of coffee, energy drinks, soft drinks and energy shots for soon-to-be weary travelers. And, if they like your brew, make it easy for them to grab a bag of their favorite blend or a reusable/refillable mug. Some stores up the ante more, offering free coffee on select days over the next few weeks. It’s a great way to reward harried travelers and get them inside your stores.

Above all, the next six weeks are a chance to showcase how you can solve travelers’ problems and get them on their way with a smile, not matter how busy the roads are.

Happy holidays!

Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives, waits for the limited-time-only Gobbler to come out and often enjoys his first of many the day after Thanksgiving.