The motorway service station has been around since Watford Gap opened in 1959. Back then, it was all fine dining and table-side service – what we’d call a ‘destination event’ today, but sixty years later, it seems that the prices are still aimed fine dining, but without the experience, or table-side service, or decent food.

A cheese sandwich, refrigerated sausage roll, ready salted crisps, Wine Gums, Dairy Milk chocolate, Coke and water – typically around £6.90 from the average supermarket, but if you’re shopping at a motorway service station, expect to pay a little more. OK, maybe more than that, and that. In fact, those seven items could cost you over £16.

We’re fully aware that motorway services tend to make the most of their pricing and captive audience, but an average of 14% more expensive for fuel, and a whopping 135% costlier than a supermarket for snacks? That’s quite a markup.

UK service station

Completely justified

Of course, if you ask one of the service station operators, those prices are completely justifiable. A spokesman for Roadchef, which operates 30 different services on 21 sites, cornering 24% of the market share and generates revenue of around £115m per year, said:

“Motorway services are complex businesses and, unlike many high street operations, are required to be open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We also maintain around 10-40 acres of land around our sites, as well as access roads, lighting, extensive parking areas and in some instances, water treatment works. It means that our overheads are significantly higher than the majority of supermarkets and convenience stores.”

“Our own research suggests we are competitively priced against other service areas on these products and we strive to offer customers a range of choice in all areas, including fresh, high-quality sandwiches and snacks which are prepared in our own on-site kitchens in most cases.”

It’s worth noting that the Heart of Scotland services (M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow) would charge just £9.31 for the same items.

The top ten rip-offs

Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a North/South divide, with just £0.51 covering the top ten, covering regions from the North East and the West Midlands, through to London, Wales and the South East.

  1. Durham Services A1(M) – £16.21
  2. Lancaster (Forton) M6 – £16.17
  3. Woolley Edge M1 – £16.17
  4. Hilton Park M6 – £16.16
  5. Leigh Delamere M4 – £16.16
  6. Beaconsfield Services M40 – £16.01
  7. Bothwell Services M74 – £15.96
  8. Magor Services M4 – £15.81
  9. Birchanger Green M11 – £15.75
  10. Reading Services M4 – £15.70

Bottled water seems to be the favourite for inflated prices, with some service stations charging as much as 420% extra over a typical £0.44 price from the supermarket, with the Beaconsfield services charging £2.29 for just half a litre. All services offer free water refills though.

Government clampdown

For some years, government ministers have been promising to clampdown on the price inflation, but to date, nothing has been done, and there’s no plans to do anything. Clare Egan, head of Motor Product at Admiral Insurance (that commissioned the mystery shopper research) admits that most drivers expect to pay a levy for the convenience of the motorway service station, but that the prices at some service areas are nothing short of “highway robbery”.

“Grabbing the essentials from home or at least a supermarket before setting off could result in some big savings on the overall cost of your journey. Given the availability of free water refills at all of the service stations and the push to be plastic-free, motorists don’t need to spend anything on bottled water, let alone a forking out as much as 420 per cent more than in a supermarket.”

“Many of us will be making cross-country trips with our families over the coming weeks, and it will be tempting to stop en route for a snack or petrol. By planning ahead, you could avoid the hyper inflated service station costs, save some money for Christmas and help the environment at the same time.”

A reasonable cost

In the world of marketing and commerce, there’s a saying that goes along the lines of “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” – think along the lines of Facebook, Google, Twitter et al … it’s your data that’s of value to the company.

Clearly, when a company is offering a service (such as the motorway service areas), you expect to pay a premium for the convenience, but at what point does that ‘premium’ become blatant profiteering? While the operators claim to be ‘competitively priced’ with other providers, that doesn’t really say much, aside from the fact that they’re nearly all charging too much, and it’s unlikely to end anytime soon.

Do you use service stations? Are you happy paying the extra for the convenience? Or is it just a case of a bathroom break and nothing else? Let us know in the comments.

Image credit: © Copyright Mark Anderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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