The American way of snacks

Penthouse Pets, Joker rolling papers and frolicking chimpanzees: At the National Association of Convenience Stores show, it all makes a kooky kind of sense.

By Chad Dickerson

Published October 22, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

I am racing remote-control cars on a miniature racetrack against three other excited men, cheered on by a half dozen beautiful, scantily clad young women, one of whom lies supine, writhing and squealing in the oval at the center of the track.

I am on the exhibit floor of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) annual convention, sitting in a booth sponsored by Robert Burton Associates, the makers of Joker, E-Z Wider, Club, and Rizlat rolling papers. I am holding a remote-control device, hoping to win $25 and a free photo with a bikini model. Driving the Joker car, I come in third, but I still feel like a winner. The girls were screaming my name: "Go Chad! Go Joker!" I imagine that the setup was conceived by a stoner rolling-paper consumer who just thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if ...?" And you know what? He was right. As I leave, the driver of the winning E-Z Wider car poses with the bikini model.

I wander into the "detoxification product" area and am handed a box of "unisex synthetic urine" by a Spectrum Labs representative. Take it to your next drug test -- it comes with a handy heating pack to warm the urine to body temperature as it pours. Convenience isn't just about snack food. The day before, after wandering through the Budweiser "pub," where the bartenders call you by name (oh, the name tag!) and beer is free for all, I came across Chaser, a company that claims to have a product that finally provides "what people have sought for 12,000 years -- freedom from hangovers!" For every devil on one shoulder, there's an angel on the other, conveniently waiting to redeem you, at the NACS show.

I am not a member of the NACS or a regular attendee of its conferences, though I do more than my fair share of convenience-store shopping. I write a weekly column targeted at chief technology officers, and on those merits I was invited to speak about leadership in technology for "," the technology track of the conference.

I arrive at 7:30 a.m. on the second day of the conference to set up. I'm introduced shortly after 8 a.m. by Fran Duskiewicz, the VP and CFO of Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes Inc. I give a 45-minute presentation to fewer than 30 people. It's not one of the convention's glamour events: more like a supper club in Tahoe while the guys running the "Loss Prevention 101" session next door are playing Reno. The "Snacks" session just down the hall is Vegas.

And the convention floor is Broadway. Condensed convenience at its most convenient! I step through the doors from the concourse and I enter Freud's "cauldron of seething excitement." I have unwittingly crossed a threshold into the American id, at once lazy and ambitious, a glorious mess of desire mixed with manifest destiny and economic imperative. Instant gratification is the business, and business is good -- and bigger and sillier than you can imagine.

As trade shows go, the NACS event is massive, one of the 100 largest in the United States. This year it has drawn 5,396 retailers and marketers, who take up more than 900,000 square feet of exhibit space divided into petroleum equipment and services, facility development and store operations, technology, food equipment and food service programs, general merchandise, candy, and snacks.

Think 33 football fields. Every product you have encountered in a convenience store -- sodas, beer, candy, bandannas -- is blown into a full-size booth. The top 10 in-store product categories are 1) cigarettes, 2) food service, 3) packaged beverages, 4) beer, 5) candy, 6) salty snacks, 7) fluid milk products, 8) general merchandise, 9) packaged sweet snacks, and 10) "other tobacco." Slurpees, Chilly Willies, Miller Lite, single-dose packets of Tylenol, Durex condoms, microwave burritos -- they're all here. And there are abundant free samples for everyone.

The size of the convention hall barely hints at the size of the convenience store, or "c-store," industry. According to NACS statistics, 1.4 million employees work in 124,500 convenience stores nationwide, serving an average of 1,100 customers per day per store, with total sales of $283 billion in 2001, with $171 billion in motor-fuel sales alone (79 percent of the gasoline in the United States -- 115.5 billion gallons -- is sold at convenience stores).

That's almost $19 each week for every man, woman and child in America. If you subtract the gas, it's still $11 a week. The heft of the industry was enough to draw Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski to deliver the opening remarks and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to close the conference. Krzyzewski talked about the value of teamwork, and Albright spoke about the American dream, Iraq and terrorism -- broad and unquestionably American themes. The message for this audience is implicit: We will beat terrorism via the sheer will to provide American convenience to the world. If a man in Thailand is unable to walk into a 7-Eleven for a 44 oz. Big Gulp, then the terrorists have won.

Like most other industries, the convenience-store business boasts its own esoteric trade magazines, with names like Professional Candy Buyer and Convenience Store News. In its latest issue, Professional Candy Buyer names Cassondra Melton of Wal-Mart "Buyer of the Year." One of her suppliers provides a testimonial: "Cassondra has a passion for the growth of confectionary and its total consumption."

Convenience Store News' lineup of columns includes Petro View, Security Beat, and Smoking Section, along with featured "shopper panel" research on the "salty snacks" category: 41 percent of salty snack purchases by teens are "planned" and 59 percent are "impulse." Slightly less impulsive adults clock in at 51 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Of those demographics most likely to purchase a meal at a convenience store, teen males lead the way at 53 percent, followed by 13- to 14-year-olds (52 percent), and both adults and teens in the Northeast (36 and 62 percent, respectively). I am suddenly feeling a bit more reflective about my own consumption habits -- my desire for a bag of chips at 1 a.m. has been quantified and analyzed.

Inside the exhibit hall, one of the longest lines is at the Penthouse booth, but the Penthouse Pets are only part of the reason. Penthouse promises to deliver $3,190 in sales per square foot per outlet, with $1,088 of that in pure profit. The booth operator extols the Penthouse profit machine while Courtney Taylor (Penthouse Pet, March '02) and Natalia Cruze sign autographs. I don't frequent strip clubs and I have never stood in line to have fully clothed models sign nude photos of themselves with intimate messages, but I still can't resist.

I decide to get a signed glossy for my friend Andrew but find myself speechless when I'm standing in front of Courtney. I ask her to sign something typical. She wants to know Andrew's age. I tell her he's 40, so she scribbles the URL to her Web site on the bottom -- she didn't want to include anything "too racy" if Andrew was a kid. Then she writes, "Dear Andrew. Wish you were here. You are in my dreams. xoxo, Courtney." The father of the middle-aged salesman in front of me also turns out to be in Courtney's dreams, as is the co-worker of the young candy distributor just behind me. New men enter Courtney's dreams at a rate of about one every three minutes.

Walking away from Courtney, doing my best to climb out of the depths of adolescent desire, I end up pulled back even further into the most fundamental of childhood longings -- the dream of having one's own pet chimpanzee. I have just come upon the Too Tarts Candy booth, and 10 feet in front of me, a chimpanzee frolics with his caretakers, a darling young couple.

I watch Too Tarts Jackson -- "the lovable chimp who thinks he's a kid" -- charm the adoring crowd, and I am giggling in delight along with everyone else. He does somersaults. He shakes his head. His caretakers regale the crowd with stories of Too Tart Jackson's high jinks. Too Tarts Jackson is a lovable mess of energy. Too Tarts Jackson has his own kitchen, and boy is it a mess! Too Tarts Jackson once called 911 by hitting a speed dial on the phone. What a mess! When the police found out that it was actually a chimpanzee on the other end, oh, how they laughed and laughed. In the end, they invited Too Tarts Jackson to the police station, gave him a tour, and even gave him an honorary badge! Oh, the antics. I had already scripted a life with Too Tarts Jackson in my head by then, complete with laugh track and monogrammed TTJ sweaters.

Not far away, at the R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson booths, the booth operators and their retail clients smoke around card tables. People at the R.J. Reynolds booth are sent out for beer at the Budweiser booth. People inside the Budweiser booth are sent out for cigarettes at the Brown & Williamson booth. A small closed-loop economy forms before my eyes. All needs are met.

But it's not all beer, cigarettes, snacks and candy -- although you wonder what more any red-blooded American could possibly want. There are other needs to be addressed. For the consumer who doesn't have time to make a bandanna out of the traditional square handkerchief, there is the Flydanna from Zan Headgear in San Diego, a showcase of American inventiveness. The bother of folding and twisting the handkerchief is gone -- the Flydanna fits the same way every time. All the busy consumer has to do is tie the two strings attached to the cloth of the Flydanna -- the trailing flap on the traditional bandanna is there, but it works the same way every time. No more refolding bandannas after you wash them. The Flydanna is the Big Mac of head wear -- it might not be the best solution aesthetically, but you'll get the same thing every time you buy one.

I leave the show floor, but not before a pack of caffeinated Jolt gum is thrust at me by a hyperactive girl screaming, "Chew more! Do more!" The American will to consume more and produce more personified in a stick of gum. I grab it.

Weary from overstimulation, I go back to my hotel room, where I quickly fall asleep. I dream vividly ... I'm in a race car being driven erratically by Too Tarts Jackson. That lovable chimp. I'm laughing, wearing my Flydanna and drinking limitless Bud. And Courtney is cheering us on from the back seat.

Walking around the NACS conference, I can't help but recall the title of one of the albums that helped me deal with the angst of my teenage years: The Dead Kennedys' "Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death." In typical over-the-top Jello Biafra fashion, the songs on the album take various hypercritical turns at police, jocks, state and federal governments, and truck-driving rednecks. The Dead Kennedys, despite their out-of-control hyperbole, still make me a little uncomfortable. A bad day at work in the context of the song "Life Sentence" is enough to give one pause:

All you care about is your career
It's a life sentence
You're squelching your emotions
All you talk about is old times
You don't do what you want to
But you do the same thing everyday
No sense of humor
But such good manners
Now you're an adult
You're boring.

But give me convenience or give me death? If my experience on the last day of the conference is any indication, I may have to concede the point, hyperbole notwithstanding, to Mr. Biafra. Battling inconvenience doesn't seem like a life-or-death cause, but in an America addicted to quick, easy and painless solutions, any obstacles to immediate gratification are sure to create murderous impulses.

It's my last day in Orlando and I am standing in line with 13 other people in a McDonald's just off International Drive. If Sea World were at the top of a dartboard and Disney World were at the bottom, I would be standing directly in the bull's-eye -- hallowed ground in the universe of convenience. In front of me, an elderly "customer service representative" behind the counter puzzles over the register, only to be pushed aside by a young assistant manager, who quickly takes control and takes my order.

To my right, an obviously distressed man in pressed khaki pants, tasseled loafers and a striped golf shirt speaks intensely into his cell phone: "I am in McDonald's and a transaction on my Visa card for $11.56 will not go through. Do you know how this affects my customer loyalty to your bank? I have made a scene at McDonald's trying to spend $11.56 on my Visa gold card. Ridiculous."

It's clear that I am walking into the middle of a situation -- this has been going on for a while. The elderly woman behind the counter keeps sliding the man's Visa card through the reader, shrugging her shoulders and pointing to the digital readout, which reads "Call voice operator." The man provides the play-by-play to the bank's "customer service representative" on the other end of the line.

"Ridiculous. I have traveled all over the world with this card and I am in Orlando, Florida, and I can't spend $11.56 on my Visa card at McDonald's. Ridiculous."

His cell phone battery will die soon and $11.56 worth of food is getting cold as quickly as it was served. The McDonald's customer service representative continues swiping the card through the reader even more emphatically, as if the card reader is a violin and the card is the bow. The level of intensity in the man's voice increases with each swipe. I can almost hear the music.

I fumble through my pockets, pay cash, and I'm seated with my meal in less than three minutes. Just across the street at the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center, the NACS convention is closing.

"Ridiculous. Do you know what it feels like to be in McDonald's for 30 MINUTES?!"

I don't -- I finish my meal and I'm leaving Orlando in a rented Pontiac Grand Am. I am at ground zero for convenience in America, and the inconvenience is staggering.

Chad Dickerson

Chad Dickerson is the CTO of InfoWorld and former CTO of Salon.

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