Price Point: Why are motorway services so expensive?
Since the dawn on time, motorway service areas have been lambasted for their poor quality and high prices. Changes to the choice of food appear to have addressed the quality issues, but the complaints about the prices remain unaddressed. In 2019, just 59% of service station customers said they felt they had received value for money, while 91% said the food was "good".
Now that most service stations are using food and retail brands that can be found on the high street, customers expect the prices to be the same as the high street too. They are not. The vast majority of food prices at motorway outlets are set by the service area operator, so there is no competition between each outlet, and an inflated price applies to every project.
Customers have always blamed this motorway premium on corporate greed: motorway service areas are private businesses out to make money, and they know that the majority of their customers would not be willing to leave the motorway to find somewhere else to stop. Their only real competition comes from each other, and given that most roads are only shared by two or three operators, this has created an oligopoly.
In addition, the motorway services industry is a difficult industry to enter. It is dominated by existing powerful firms, and building a new service area requires a massive investment and a lot of work with planning and highway authorities. Until 2013 there had been a ban on building too close to an existing service area; this no longer applies, but most councils oppose new service area developments, so,operators can take comfort in that for the most part they will only have each other to worry about.
Having said all that, we can't be too critical of operators. The large costs that keep new entrants out of the industry apply to existing firms too. Operators have been saddled by large amounts of debt owing to the investment required to build and maintain their estate. New developments tend to cost well over £30m, and many sites are paying landowners as much as £2.5m in rent per year.
If operating a service station was as easy as it sounded, obvious candidates such as supermarkets wouldn't have turned their noses up at the idea of running one.
The obvious problem service stations have to contend with is the requirement to be open 24 hours a day, selling fuel, food and drinks even in the early hours of Christmas morning. The vast majority of customers - previously thought to be as many as 70%-90% of them - are only using free facilities such as the toilets and the car park, which are provided at great expense.
This regulation can be so constraining that some developers are now opting to build a site next to a motorway but not register it as an official service area (which would involve signing a Traffic Signs Agreement and placing signs on the motorway). Doing this allows them to make the site as small as they wish, discourages non-purchasing customers and means the developer can open and close whenever they wish.
Some service areas are located in remote areas and recruiting and retaining staff for what is essentially a retail job can be difficult. (Retail work is usually badly paid so normally attracts candidates who can't drive; service stations have to find a solution to this as they are unlikely to be safely accessible on foot.) Staffing is made more difficult by the fact that trade levels can be very unpredictable: at one moment several coaches may stop together, at the next the motorway may be blocked by an accident. London Gateway, for example, lost three days of trade, hotel bookings and stock because the M1 was closed for an incident.
The remote locations can raise other operating costs too, including the cost of building a sewerage system that can handle the high customer levels, as well as the costs associated with calling out contractors and arranging deliveries. As each operator usually owns a network of service stations that are thinly spread across the country, they are normally limited to working with national firms who can supply anywhere in Britain.
Motorway services areas tend to be built over very large grounds, and these come with lengthy road networks that are expensive to repair and maintain. Unlike in most other countries, British service stations are responsible for repairing their own road right up to the motorway boundary, including its signs and lampposts. They also have to maintain their own signs on the motorway, which means hiring a contractor who is trained to safely close motorway lanes. Another key difference with the rest of the world is that British motorways have very dense traffic flows, so large car parks and large dining areas are required to make room for all the custom that may or may not be arriving.
The final issue is that many of the UK's motorway service areas were built in the 1960s, and are now over 50 years old. These buildings can be difficult to manage, not just because their layout isn't good for modern catering, but because they require regular maintenance, they often straddle the motorway and they quickly look tired.
As early as 1965, a government statement responded to growing criticism by saying "we cannot dictate prices but we are concerned that they should be reasonable". However, they remained reluctant to accept there were any issues. They said that the nature of the business meant there were high running costs, especially at night, and when they investigated, they found prices were not as high as they had been told to expect.
The first problem was the rent arrangements which had been made. Service stations used to pay rent as a proportion of their turnover, not profit, so any investment that attracted more customers would immediately mean paying more rent even if the profit margin hadn't increased. This meant several early operators struggled to break even (an estimated 3 out of 12 were losing money in 1966). Service areas were eventually sold the freehold of the land they were built on.
Since then the government has always had one word in response to price complaints: deregulation. Initially the motorway was one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, with limits on shop sizes, little control over the site layout, a total ban on promoting your facilities and a rule that effectively prevented them being too popular. These all ate at costs, but regulations were cut back on in 1979, 1992 and 2013. Now the industry is much more free market, leaving operators free to try out new ideas, while still being free to charge whatever they like.
See also: Mobile Apps
Some people will go to great lengths to avoid spending money at a service area, from packing their own food to even heading down unknown B-roads in a desperate bid to find fuel. For many people this isn't practical, so they may instead prefer to head for the fast food chain for lunch or just WHSmith in order to find enough snacks to keep them going until the next stop.
Service areas do occasionally run their own promotions, which are listed below, but these are becoming rarer now that they rely on big-name food brands. Most food brands now have their own app with discounts or loyalty points, but tread carefully: the nature of the franchise agreement means that a brand's promotions or loyalty points may not be valid, so always check the small print and confirm with staff.
Franchising also means that food and shop brands will probably charge different prices depending on who runs it. McDonald's franchises tend to have only a small mark-up, while KFC franchises tend to have a much larger one.
Working out if it's a franchise or not can get confusing. Most motorway food and shop units are ran by the operator, while a store on an A-road could be run directly by the brand, or as a franchise from another operator. Our guide lists who runs each facility under "operators".
Holders of discount cards such as Blue Light, Forces and Veterans discounts should always check, as most cards are accepted.
Coach and HGV drivers often have no choice but to use a motorway service area, so the operators often provide special discounts to attract them to their facility in particular: these are detailed on the Professional Drivers page.
- The Moto App - Moto offer two "daily deals" to app holders
- List of accepted discount cards
- Why do prices at Motorway Service Areas sometimes seem so high? - as the ones who charge the prices, sure enough Moto have an excuse ready.
- @motoway on Twitter - Moto run promotions and competitions on Twitter
- Welcome Break
- Just off Junction - A website listing a variety of locations near the motorway, including petrol stations and supermarkets