Advice From The Caves

Beer "exploring" grows in c-store popularity as caves allow retailers to offer the coldest brew in town

More convenience store shoppers are going spelunking for beer thanks to the continued popularity of beer caves, deep walk-in coolers dedicated to the alcoholic beverage practically synonymous with the convenience channel.

The "ideally chilly" cave merchandising concept is certainly not new, but it is growing as a forward-thinking c-store dimension a la higher-quality foodservice. More and more, c-store chains are blasting their brew caves as a shopping attribute and attraction.

Now with beer caves in more than 60 percent of its stores, Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons Inc. hypes to customers on its website that "we provide you with the coldest beer in town" and "you can always find your favorite domestic and import beer at Thorntons."

Similarly, Parker's Convenience Stores in Savannah, Ga., has pushed a "cold beer king" image for nearly five years, thanks to the desirability of its beer caves that are now nestled inside 23 of its 27 stores. The company reportedly strives to offer extra value in its major categories, such as providing a variety of "customizable" condiments at its coffee bar and providing "chewy" ice and fresh-brewed sweet tea and lemonade at the fountain, according to Brandon Hofmann, marketing director for The Parker Cos.

"In beer, our value is that we are committed to delivering the absolute coldest beer in town," Hofmann told Convenience Store News.

Tonawanda, N.Y.-based NOCO Energy Corp.'s NOCO Express c-stores favor beer caves, too, especially moving forward in all future new builds and remodeled stores. "It's the way for all new construction," reported Mike Newman, executive vice president.

Of its 33 stores in operation, eight NOCO Express locations currently house beer caves, but 10 to 12 in total are expected by this year's end. Beer caves are part of what the chain internally refers to as an "enterprise offering" — similar to its expanded foodservice program — designed to better meet the needs of its customers.

At Eastern Petroleum Corp. in Enfield, N.C., the retailer has been testing beer caves in two of its newest stores for more than a year, according to Jean Waters, its spokesperson. "It's all about being able to entice customers with the coldest beer and being able to store more beer in those stores," she said.

The chilly reputation of a beer cave is something customers can instantly feel, and the belief for many is the colder the beer, the better. The "magic" number seems to be 28 degrees Fahrenheit — the coldest temperature beer can be stored at without freezing. This has become the industry standard by which most beer caves are set.

"With our caves, the customers are able to feel exactly how cold it is each time they walk in," Parker's Hofmann maintained, adding that the below-freezing temperature, which might ordinarily be considered uncomfortable to customers, is literally felt as a plus when it's about the chilled state of their beer.

NOCO's Newman also pointed out the expanded stocking advantages for retailers who set up a beer cave. Namely, "it's a great avenue for backstock — you can store cold beer in the back of the cave cooler where nobody can see it, then pull it out when needed on a Friday afternoon or Saturday," he explained.

Additionally, a cave "allows you to stock and sell bigger packages of cold beer — 18 packs and cases, in addition to six-packs and 12-packs," Newman added. "In a regular store without a cooler, those are typically stored in a non-cold environment, but with a cave, they are out and sellable to the consumer."

Beer caves have also been known to take an otherwise low-traffic corner of a store and drive lots of foot traffic to it. What's more, they eliminate the labor element of merchandising and stocking beer, as well as free up typically four or more doors of cooler merchandising space that previously housed large packs of beer.

As retailers move forward in the beer category and become more entrenched with caves, a few common best beer cave practices are emerging, such as:

Don't clutter up the caves. "Our caves are very inviting and not cluttered," Hofmann stressed. Keeping them well-lit is another must. "We build very large, open, well-lit beer caves with a lot of glass at the entrance," he added. Typical industry beer cave specifications seem to hover around 12 feet wide by 10 feet deep and eight feet tall, with room for at least five shoppers in the cave at one time.

Solidify wholesaler partnerships. If you don't have a good relationship with your beer supplier, now's the time to make nice or get a new supplier.

"Good partnerships with your beer wholesalers are a must when you go with a cave," stated Newman. "We're great partners with our distributor here in Buffalo. They're very helpful in merchandising around the format with the right package sizes, brands, etc."

Define a unique cave experience. Getting creative with a beer cave sign and name is a unique way for retailers to brand their cave as their own. LED lighting used to highlight the name or a company's logo over the cave is a surefire way to make it stand out. Some have even gone beyond the "igloo" images, such as Fill Good in Waxhaw, N.C., a store highlighted by CSNews earlier this year, which designed its beer cave to look like a vault, featuring a faux vault-door design on the side of the real entrance to the cave.

Parker's recently added music to its caves to eliminate the noise from the loud cooler fans, and also to differentiate itself. "It's all about the shopping experience. We want our customers to have a great experience in our stores — and that includes in our caves," said Hofmann.

Continually change it up. It's not enough just to set up your cave and forget it. Parker's, for example, continually strives to find ways to differentiate its cave offering by changing up the experience, according to Hofmann. For instance, the chain recently added a growler station in one of its downtown locations. "We are now selling craft beer in its best state as a draft beer," Hoffman maintained. "We sell eight varieties of crafts in a take-home, 64-ounce sealed container known as a growler."

Let your cave reflect the latest trends. Beer caves allow retailers to add more microbrews and crafts, both of which are on trend in the beer category. Parker's is one retailer adding more microbrews and crafts in a variety of pack sizes, according to Hofmann. "We understand that the craft beer craze is here to stay and we want to be a part of it," he said. "While the craft beer consumer only spends 30 percent of their beer money on crafts, we want to make sure we are able to capture that sale."

The First Beer Caves

Did you know the first beer caves were actual caves! Before electrical refrigeration methods, beer was commonly stored in deep holes underground or in the side of mountains, which is how the beer cave manufacturing industry came up with the modern-day name.

By holding products at 28 degrees Fahrenheit, modern beer caves are set at the coldest possible temperature that beer can be stored at without freezing. Once beer has been chilled, however, it loses quality every time it drops to room temperature and is chilled again, according to Supermarket Services Co., a beer cave supplier based in Tishomingo, Okla.

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