The impact of COVID-19 on summer travel + how c-stores should adjust

Katie Cofer | Jun 24, 2020 Katie Cofer 06/24/20

Despite the pandemic drastically altering most summer vacations this year, 58% of consumers still plan to travel over the Independence Day weekend.

To get a better idea of what those travel plans look like and what customers expect of brands, we turned to SMG’s customized market intelligence tool BrandGeek® and collected feedback from more than 7,600 consumers. Here are the top themes we uncovered.

Health + safety concerns continue to keep people home

Even though most non-essential businesses opened up this summer, many people across the country still aren’t ready to venture out. This will have a big impact on holiday travel, as 80% of people who went out of town for Fourth of July last year say they are traveling less this summer.

Not surprisingly, the level of concern about COVID-19 exposure has a big impact on travel decisions. For those who say they won’t travel over the holiday weekend, 35% strongly agree they are concerned about catching the virus—while only 21% of those who plan to travel more than 50 miles strongly agree they are concerned.

80% of summer travelers are not traveling due to COVID-19

For those willing to travel, it’s all about the road trip

As health and safety concerns remain high, many vacationers are reconsidering their choice of destination—particularly if that journey required air travel. Instead, they’re opting to gas up their cars and head out for a good old-fashioned road trip.

Our research shows more than half of respondents plan to take a road trip this summer—with 54% of them expecting to travel 250 miles or more. A couple factors increase those chances: Families with children and those 34 and younger are more likely to hit the open road.

54% of travelers expect to drive 250 miles or more

An opportunity for c-stores to shine

More road trips mean more pit stops and a chance for c-stores to earn the trust and loyalty of customers. And what’s the best way to do that amid a pandemic? Show them clean.

Cleanliness is the top priority for customers right now, with 55% saying it’s the most important factor when deciding to visit a convenience store (followed by convenience at 48% and fuel prices at 41%). This is when brand consistency is key. A previous positive experience (i.e., clean bathrooms) will increase the chances a customer will return.

cleanliness matters most to c-store customers

It’s also important to be fully stocked on pre-packaged items. Many customers are still leery about ordering fresh food from cafes or restaurants and are looking to grab a quick bite for the road (quick being the operative word—convenience is still important, so focus on speed of service to get customers in and out as quickly as possible).

And for those customers who aren’t comfortable going inside at all, it may be worth offering a little something extra to set you apart from the competition. Some c-store brands—such as Murphy USA—are providing floor court attendants at certain locations to purchase items for customers who would prefer to stay in their car. This low-effort gesture could have a big impact in a time when customers are favoring brands that care.

Adjust your XM strategy to meet the needs of cautious travelers

With 86% of customers reporting COVID-19 impacted their vacation in some way, it’s safe to say this summer is not what most of us had planned. And while some are choosing to stay home and celebrate Fourth of July with a backyard barbeque, others are venturing out—relying on brands that prioritize their health and provide them with a safe experience.

As consumer behavior continues to shift amid the pandemic, c-stores must also evolve to meet new expectations. To stay informed on current trends and optimize your XM strategy to fit those trends, download the executive brief: COVID 19 insights | Impact on the c-store industry.

Katie Cofer | VP, Customer Engagement

Customer Experience Update