Selling cold and frozen dispensed beverages used to be a fairly simple proposition. But as summer turns to fall in the year of COVID-19, convenience store operators have had to improvise to bolster consumers’ confidence.
As some regions see lockdowns easing while others deal with a re-emergence, social distancing and the heightened need for sanitizing have made selling cold dispensed drinks a bit more complicated. That said, nothing is going to dampen the popularity of these drinks for long.
“As you know, the c-store channel has been relatively soft through the pandemic, especially in the second quarter,” said Gary Hemphill, managing director of research for Beverage Marketing Corp. “But as more things have reopened and more people are driving, the channel has seen improvement.”
He expects to see continued sales improvement in the dispensed category in the second half of the year.
Changing ‘The How’
The pandemic is not only impacting sales trends, but also operating practices.
“The biggest impact of COVID-19 on all of our dispensed beverage programs is not so much in what we offer but how,” explained Joshua Clark, category manager, fresh foods, for Worcester, Mass.-based Nouria Energy Corp., which operates more than 140 c-stores. “A lot of the geography in which we operate outright banned self-serve beverages, so we have had to staff our beverage areas and make them a full-service operation.”
The move has paid off for Nouria. The c-store chain’s cold and frozen dispensed program is satisfying the afternoon snacking occasion, with “an overwhelming majority of our sales coming in the early to mid-afternoon,” Clark said.
Nouria’s cold and frozen dispensed-beverage offerings include iced coffee, Frazil, f’real, and fountain soda in select stores, which pair well with the chain’s made-to-order foodservice options.
In stores where self-service is again allowed, some customers may still be wary of self-serve areas, warned Ryan Mathews, principal of Black Monk Consulting in Royal Oak, Mich. “If c-store operators really want to capture their fair share of this potentially exciting category, the first step is to do everything they can to allay any of the fears about possible contamination customers may have,” Mathews said.
“Developing a standard operating procedure that shows consumers the area is routinely monitored should provide consumer confidence that the area is clean and sanitized,” said Jenny Stanley, senior policy program manager for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), which operates 479 convenience stores.
She added that c-store operators that put strong cleaning procedures in place and execute against them shouldn’t have any hygiene issues around the dispensed beverage section.
“It’s no different than pre-packaged beverages that are inside the cold vault, with people touching the door handles,” Stanley said.
But communication is also key in maintaining consumer confidence.
“You have to let the customers know you’re doing it through signage, saying something like, ‘These machines are sanitized after every use,’ or ‘every 15 minutes,’ or whatever time frame makes sense where you are,” Mathews said.
“For convenience stores to increase sales of dispensed beverages, the key will be to increase the consumer belief that it is as safe to dispense their own beverage as it is to buy one that is pre-packaged and sealed,” said Don Burke, senior vice president for Management Science Associates in Pittsburgh.
Burke suggested keeping all cups and straws behind the counter until a drink is purchased so consumers see that they have not been exposed to the public.
“Put the entire dispensed beverage section behind the counter in the foodservice area, and only have them dispensed by store personnel — or only provide individually wrapped cups, straws and utensils in the dispensed-beverage sections.”