NATIONAL REPORT — Have you hung a “Welcome Back” sign above your coffee bar, fountain drink station, and frozen slushie machines? These areas may have been hard-hit for many convenience stores that suspended self-serve beverages to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus last year, but the time is ripe for renewal.
“Dispensed beverages are a valued offering to our customers. It continues to represent a healthy portion of overall transactions,” said Jim Rastetter, category manager of hot and cold dispensed beverage at Richmond, Va.-based GPM Investments LLC. The wholly owned subsidiary of Arko Corp. has grown through acquisitions to roughly 2,950 locations comprised of approximately 1,350 company-operated stores and 1,600 dealer sites spread across 33 states and Washington, D.C.
“We must adapt by staying engaged with customer expectations in this area,” he told Convenience Store News. “We expect 2021 to be an exciting year for dispensed beverages, and we are ready to welcome consumers back into the category.”
The Rules for Renewal
Industry experts say these are the key factors for the rebirth of dispensed beverages:
- Standardized sanitary procedures;
- Single-serve condiments;
- A contactless drink selection experience through interface or phone;
- Touchless technology in water, ice and lid dispensers;
- Valve guards/shields that fit over existing machines;
- All-day programs, including fresh coffee;
- A wide flavor assortment, inclusive of limited-time offers;
- Additional blends in place of syrups;
- Sustainable coffee blends;
- Offering nugget or chewy ice;
- A frozen flavor mashup menu;
- All plastic cups, eliminating foam;
- Hologram displays above machines to generate excitement; and
- A more premium experience overall.
One of the greatest customer expectations now is a sanitary beverage bar across the board, according to Rastetter. “Having a standard procedure in dispensed beverage program areas that is visible to customers is the greatest way to instill confidence,” he advised. “Routine monitoring and cleaning of the beverage bar is critical.”
This includes wiping down surfaces, keeping equipment in good working order, and keeping areas clear of clutter — together, they are the best way to prevent contamination.
“The presentation of the program and cleanliness of these stations will continue to be paramount past COVID,” echoed Emily Wood Bowron, vice president of strategic marketing for Moody, Ala.-based Red Diamond Coffee & Tea.
Other ways she sees the category evolving are providing single-serve condiment options, such as single-shot creamers and individual sugar sticks or packets; and offering an even greater variety of choices.
“Variety and options are taking a front-seat more than ever,” Wood Bowron said. “Customers want to get exactly what they want, how they want it, when they want it, so capitalizing on customizable options is not only great for customer engagement, but it also will help promote repeat visits.”
Customers expect diversification and choice at dispensed beverage stations and coffee bars, added Rastetter. Offering engaging limited-time offers and unique flavors is important, and so is the shift from cubed ice to nugget or chewy ice. “Consumers have begun to expect this popular ice when pouring a drink,” he relayed.
Meeting customer demand for dispensed beverages these days may also mean having a choice of flavored iced teas at 10 a.m. and a fresh coffee option at 3 p.m. Making sure all dispensed beverages in the program are always fresh and of a high quality will engender trust and continued exploration outside of standard dayparts, according to Wood Bowron. “Breakfast, in particular, has become an all-day event, and consumers still look for healthier alternatives to soda,” she noted.
Rastetter agrees that dispensed beverages should be treated as an all-day program by c-store operators. “Cold and frozen beverages continue to have strong sales during lunchtime and into the evening,” he reported, pointing out that offering fresh coffee all day is easier than ever with the introduction of bean to cup. “These programs are easy for c-stores to execute and complement many of the snack items we sell.”
The fewer steps a customer must take to mix the perfect beverage, the better.
“Instead of just offering a regular and a decaf coffee with multiple syrups, consider adding a flavored coffee like hazelnut and another limited offering to the lineup, so customers touch fewer surfaces and deal with fewer handles and levers to create a flavored beverage,” Wood Bowron offered.
In tandem with the demand for a high cleanliness level, touchless and contact-free technology is on the rise and more available from varying machine suppliers.
For instance, Coca-Cola Freestyle launched a “pour by phone” contactless experience powered by Amazon Web Services. A series of signals and steps take place in the cloud, verifying that each phone is connected to the right machine, with only in-stock beverages shown as flavor options. Pours then start and stop with the touch of a button on the phone screen, resulting in a “magical experience for the user,” according to a company spokesperson. By the end of 2020, all U.S. Freestyle machines were equipped with this touchless technology.