Total Eclipse of the Mart

Convenience stores are prepping for a wave of eclipse chasers.

Total Eclipse of the Mart

March 2024   minute read

By: Leah Ash

The path of totality for this year’s total solar eclipse is roughly 115 miles wide—over 30 miles wider than the 2017 solar eclipse. In the United States, the eclipse’s path of totality will travel from Texas to Maine, crossing over Dallas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Indianapolis; Cleveland; and Buffalo, New York; among other cities. About 31 million people live in the path of totality.

For retailers in or near the path, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. This solar eclipse will be the last one to occur in the United States until 2044, and the 2044 event will touch only Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. An eclipse in 2045 will cross over Western and Southern states, and one in 2056 will affect a few Southern states.

Lessons From the Past

Don Rhoads, president of Washington state–based The Convenience Group and NACS 2022-23 chairman, experienced the 2017 eclipse. His stores experienced a surge in traffic in the days surrounding the eclipse.

“The spillover effect of the eclipse really did boost our store sales.”

“Our stores are located in southwest Washington,” Rhoads said, “and we weren’t in the path of totality, but leading up to the actual eclipse itself, we were really busy. The spillover effect of the eclipse really did boost our store sales.”

Looking back, Rhoads said, “We weren’t as prepared as we should have been, especially on the fuel side. If I were to do this all over again, I would start earlier, maybe 60 to 90 days out. We could build that excitement leading up to the day of the eclipse.”

Rhoads began his preparations for the eclipse about a month before the event, working with suppliers to build a theme around the astronomical event. “We ran some cool promotions that were eclipse-related,” he said. “Packaged beverages, including an eclipse craft beer, were popular choices.”

“I would suggest for stores in and outside of the path of totality to prepare for the event. You have to be prepared for it, and you can’t prepare a week out,” Rhoads said. “Make sure you have necessities covered. Stock up on food, fuel and packaged beverages, and also make sure to carry a generous supply of protective eclipse glasses.”

Joe Lackey, president of the Indiana Grocery and Convenience Store Association, learned from the 2017 eclipse.

As he pushes the members of his association to prepare for the eclipse with plans for food and fuel, he has taken stock of the experiences in neighboring Kentucky, which was in the path of totality during the previous solar eclipse.

“While the exact number is still unknown, it’s predicted that somewhere in the vicinity of 500,000 to a million people may show up” in Indiana alone, Lackey said. “Indiana’s listed as one of the top 20 sites in the world to visit to view the eclipse.”

He continued: “There’s a lot of population centers in Indiana that the eclipse is going over. It’s going over Vincennes and Evansville, it’s going to go right over Indiana University, and it’s almost over the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And then we don’t know how many people are just going to be daytrippers that are going to come over from Chicago or St. Louis.”

According to Lackey, convenience stores are going to need to plan for the event in advance—but stay flexible. One big consideration is the weather. However, the question for stores in and around the eclipse zone isn’t whether there will be a surge of traffic. It’s a question of how big that surge might be.

Along with stocking up on food, beverages and fuel, c-store operators will have to consider their staff, as well.

“Plan your personnel, because you’re going to need personnel for this,” Lackey said. “You should also anticipate that personnel aren’t going to want to work that day—they’re going to want to see the eclipse, too.”

The Eclipse Is an Opportunity

As Rhoads noted, a singular event such as this offers a lot of opportunities for c-stores—it’s a way to offer special deals and promotions for customers, ranging from the special eclipse craft beer Rhoads offered in his store to eclipse merch and more, in addition to the eclipse protective eyewear.

“Plan your personnel, because you’re going to need personnel for this.”

Country Fair is a Pennsylvania-based convenience store retailer that has 40 stores located in Erie County alone. Erie is the only major city in the state within the path of totality, making it an expected hotspot for people looking to view the total solar eclipse.

Visit Erie, a marketer for the city’s tourism, is anticipating around 200,000 visitors for the eclipse, which is two-thirds the population of the city.

As part of Country Fair’s prep for the eclipse, it signed on as a corporate sponsor for Visit Erie. According to Stacy Kline, advertising manager for Country Fair, the move is beneficial for the convenience store because the city will do a lot of promoting for the retailer. Visit Erie is going to highlight Country Fair as a location where guests can purchase the special eclipse glasses, Kline said, and its visitor guide will highlight the company’s c-stores as rest stops in Pennsylvania.

“Stock up on food, fuel and packaged beverages.”

Country Fair purchased 100,000 custom-printed eclipse glasses, branded with the company’s logo, that will be offered at all Country Fair locations. The c-store’s Club CITGO loyalty members will receive a free pair, and the glasses will also be available to everyone for free with any purchase.

“We have so many stores, and they are conveniently located for people coming to watch the eclipse,” Kline said. “I think a lot of people will remember the glasses last minute, coming into our stores thinking ‘Oh, I really need some glasses.’”

The eclipse is an opportunity for c-stores, Kline noted.

“Our first campaign goal is to get customers to download our app and increase our Club CITGO loyalty membership,” she said. “Our second goal is to capture visitors that are coming to the area and introduce them to Country Fair. We want our visitors to know Country Fair as a one-stop shop for coffee and snacks, beer and wine, gas and more.”

She added, “Our last campaign goal ties into our mission, which is: Country Fair cares. We care about our employees, our customers and our community. We’ve been here since 1965, so we have deep roots in the community. We want to make sure that the glasses can get into people’s hands at convenient locations at low cost.”

Throwback: C-Stores and the 2017 Eclipse

In 2017, Rhoads drove down from Washington to the path of totality in Oregon. A word for his trek? Chaos. Rhoads noted he drove down to the site a couple of days before the actual event, and it was clear that he was one among many.

“At least 500,000 people came in to see the event, and these towns did a really good job of preparing, but you only have so much infrastructure for that number of cars,” he said. “One of the things we experienced on the drive was stop-and-go traffic for 20 miles.”

NACS Magazine covered the 2017 total solar eclipse after the event occurred.

“Everybody wanted the eclipse glasses, but we didn’t have any,” said Jean Milligan, deli manager at Reata Travel Stop in Sterling, Colorado. “Big mistake.” The travel stop did, however, stock up on various eclipse t-shirts, hoodies and souvenir items, which sold well.

At Milligan’s site, traffic exceeded expectations. “It was nonstop, but we didn’t run out of food,” she said.

On the big day, a Weigel’s store in Sweetwater, Tennessee, which was in the path of totality, threw an on-site eclipse party. The event included a spinner wheel, which let guests spin and win prizes, and samples of SharkEE, the chain’s frozen carbonated beverage.

“The kids made star bracelets and received coloring pages,” Drew Sparks, digital marketing coordinator at Weigel’s, said in 2017. “We passed out eclipse info sheets to the adults.”

Some retailers were happy to be part of the event even if they were not overwhelmed by traffic.

“We didn’t get near [as many] people in town as we expected to, but we had a great time,” said Chuck Allen, who managed a Twice Daily store in Cadiz, Tennessee, in 2017. The store hosted “Blackout in the Bluegrass,” a party for out-of-town guests and resident eclipse buffs.

Those in the zone of totality should expect a memorable experience.

“It was amazing to have it happen at our home,” said Natalie Bates, who experienced the event while working at Bodega convenience store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “The temperature dropped, and everything was dark. Dogs started barking, and babies started crying. It was kind of magical and cool.”

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