Cold Fusion

2014-01-09_1101In an exercise that captured the attention of category managers attending CSP’s Cold Vault Summit, consultant and former retailer Casey McKenzie of Lexington, Ky.-based Impact 21 Group asked the retailers to consider where they would place products in a fictional convenience store.

While the specific results didn’t matter—“There is no right or wrong answer,” McKenzie said— the real message was in the variety of answers.

While one group placed beer in the back-corner cold-vault doors across from a beef-jerky endcap, another put dairy in the same corner doors with bread and other grocery basics nearby. “We imagined our store was in the Northeast, where c-stores really evolved out of the dairy business,” explained the team’s leader, Nancy Knott, category manager of alcohol for La Palma, Calif.-based BP ampm. In that region, she reasoned, consumers are still drawn by bread, milk and eggs.

“That’s it!” McKenzie said. “This exercise is not just about product placement and adjacencies; it’s about what your marketing objectives are. Much of it is driven by who your customers are and what you want to be. But it can’t all be pie-in-the-sky stuff; there has to be some science behind it.”

For three days, 35 retailers from across the country put on their proverbial lab coats to consider the science and the data driving beverage sales today. Their scientific method started with a big picture: the economy and,
perhaps more important, how consumers view it.

“I think the economy is in a lot better shape than [most] people do,” said analyst Nik Modi, who follows beverage and tobacco stocks for RBC Capital Markets. Modi said the housing market is improving, U.S. gross-domestic product is growing again and the job picture is showing some progress.

Despite that, 10 of 12 major beverage categories are slowing and the majority of food categories are declining, according to Modi.

This is a matter of psychology and how consumers think about their purchases. “The internal consumer is being squeezed,” forcing them to be more disciplined in their spending, meaning less discretionary spending
on things such as beverages and fast food, he said. “Consumers are making choices.”

Also, as spending on cars and housing have increased this year, retail sales have declined.

Calorie Concerns
Meanwhile, the continuing trend toward healthier eating also has taken a toll in more ways than one.

First, there’s the move away from products—full-calorie sodas and juices—viewed as adding to the obesity epidemic in the United States.

But the real surprise is that even diet drinks, particularly low-calorie carbonated soft drinks, are hurting, indicating the next phase in the continuing move away from the CSD category.

“It comes down to health and wellness,” Modi said. Consumers are hearing a lot of negative news about low-calorie sweeteners, particularly aspartame, that’s turning them away from the category.

“Just as consumer interest in aspartame peaked (in the first quarter of 2013), diet CSD trends began to worsen, while regular CSD trends remained,” he said. “There are a lot of companies out there chasing the lowcalorie trend. I’m not sure it’s as important today as it used to be.”

For c-stores, those more indulgent beverages are still an area of growth. “Seventy percent of what I sell in my stores have nothing to do with health and wellness,” said retailer Lundy Edwards of Forward Corp., Standish, Mich.

Still, Modi and others pointed out, the trend suggests these full-calorie categories are falling out of favor with the public.

Ivan Alvarado, director of category management for Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, acknowledged that in just the past year, the average CSD set has shrunk from 14 shelves to nine in c-stores, most of it claimed by energy drinks and bottled water. “Some of this is related to health and wellness, and some of it is self-infl icted,” he said, citing beverage makers’ hesitance to innovate, and that “CSDs have not been able to communicate with millennials. New tactics are needed to reach these consumers.”

Added Clinton McKinney, group director category advisory for Atlantabased Coca-Cola North America, “If you want to be known as one of the retailers who embraces innovation, you’ve got to go all the way and let the
consumer know that’s your play with signage and other messaging.”

“It’s all about interrupting that autopilot behavior that consumers have in the store,” Alvarado said.

One challenge for retailers is the latest generation—those 21 to 35—coming of age. These millennials are less trusting of big business, making a warning message about the industry’s oldest artifi cial sweetener resonate all the more.

“They have a very low level of trust for institution,” Modi said. Instead, millennial consumers rely on their friends for recommendations, whether it’s a co-worker they see every day or a distant but respected acquaintance they  communicate with only through Facebook.

“It’s when recommendations start coming in on social media that sales really begin to improve,” Modi said.

To that end, Alvarado encouraged retailers to call out soda makers to turn things around. “Challenge us,” he said. “Every time we walk in your stores, ask us: What are you doing to sell more in my store?”

Energy’s Boost
One of the most active beverage categories on social media is energy drinks. With sponsorships of extreme-sport athletes and unique events, such as Red Bull’s Flugtag competition and Monster’s sponsorship of skating, surfi ng and snow events, the suppliers are keeping their brands in front of their key demographics’ eyes.

“Think about all the things that Red Bull does that make someone think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to post that [on Facebook],’ ” Modi said.

Still, energy-drink sales trends are slowing. The young category overall is growing by about 5% today, compared to the double-digit (up to 20%) growth of past years. The category is maturing, and consumers have taken notice of the headlines surrounding energy drinks and the pending lawsuits that claim the drinks are dangerous. Still, Modi doesn’t think that has had much of an effect on sales.

Energy-drink sales grew 8.6% in c-stores for the 52-week period ending Aug. 10, 2013, according to Nielsen data presented by James Ford, head of category and shopper insights for Red Bull North America, Santa Monica, Calif.

“The convenience channel is driving energy-drink growth,” he said. “And energy drinks will continue to be the biggest growth contributor to the beverage category through 2017 and beyond.”

C-store retailers attending the Cold Vault Summit generally agreed that energy drinks are still a bright spot in the cooler, bringing a high-margin ring to the checkout as the major energydrink makers—Monster, Rockstar and Red Bull—maintain a busy newproduct introduction pace to keep the category fresh.

The Wonders of Water
Bottled water is also gaining space in the cold vault as the subcategory continues its march toward becoming the No. 1 beverage in the United States.

The growth comes as usage occasions expand and variety increases, said Chelsea Allen, senior manager, category and shopper solutions, for Nestle Waters North America, Stamford, Conn.

“Bottled water outsells sodas in 13 U.S. markets today,” she said. “It will be the No. 1 beverage in the country in 2016.”

The opportunity for retailers is to grab as much share as possible of the category while it’s still growing.

“Smartwater is the fastest-growing brand, and private-label [water] is growing on distribution gains,” Allen said. “But … we know that brands bring people into your stores. In fact, 44% of all bottled-water households will only buy branded bottled water.”

To improve water sales, Allen encouraged retailers to offer single-serve packaging for the three main water segments: premium, popular and value waters. She also urged retailers to stock 12- and 24-packs of water. “Nearly 6 million shoppers shop in convenience stores and buy case pack water,” she said. “But only 1% of households buy case water in c-stores. It’s a real opportunity.”

Favoring Flavor
Millennials are helping change another aspect of the beverage landscape: They’re more willing to experiment with new flavors. They join the growing Hispanic demographic in a desire to sample bolder flavors. When you add millennials’ $1.7 trillion in spending power to Hispanics’ $1.2 trillion, the result is a “structural change” to the country’s palate.

“It’s the blending of America,” Modi said. “The white consumer is taking culinary cues from Hispanic, Asian and African-American consumers.”

This led Modi to suggest beverage manufacturers should focus less on low-calorie products and more on new flavors that appeal to this new desire for stronger flavors.

“We’re at a point in the United States where companies are taking ingredients out of their products” to make them seem more natural, Modi said. “Instead, there’s not enough flavor.”

The most obvious and successful evidence of this trend is in the beer and wine categories. One reason: By 2018, 80 million millennials will be of legal drinking age, and 20% of millennials are also Hispanic, according to Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

For wine, the move has been toward mixing varietals to create new flavors and indulging the millennial consumers’ sweet tooth.

“The millennial doesn’t want to drink what their parents drink,” said George Ubing, national director of the convenience channel for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Modesto, Calif. For Gallo, the goal of turning wine into a more refreshing beverage has prompted innovation. Leading the way are Barefoot’s lighter, more thirst-quenching line extensions Refresh, Moscato and Bubbly; and a Liberty Creek wine packaged in a Tetra Pak to target on-the-go lifestyles.

Beer’s story has been told many times: The growth is in “better beers”—imports, crafts, higher-end brews from major brewers—as consumers seek more flavor and diversity, even at greater expense.

“There’s a definite shift away from domestic beers,” said Tristano. “Today, it’s craft beers, cider and imports that are growing. When they become too popular, that’s when millennials say, ‘Wait a minute. I want to try something different.’ ”

That, to Modi, is an opportunity. Their willingness to experiment and try new flavors gives retailers permission to “reduce the SKU capacity, but supply newness,” he said. That is, don’t feel the need to stock every variation on a subcategory; instead, stock the most popular and the newest to maintain the fastest-selling brands while providing customers the ability to experiment.

This theory is backed by research that shows a balanced beer portfolio is the most successful way to grow overall beer sales, as outlined by Dean Zurliene, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch’s senior director of category management.

“There’s a lot of shifting in the beer mix today,” Zurliene said. “When retailers manage it from a balanced approach—emphasizing both premium beers and crafts—they win 93% of the time.” One reason is the beer buyer’s likelihood to buy both craft and premium beers or spend money on both segments.

“More often than not, someone who drinks craft beer also drinks premium beer, also drinks value beer, and also drinks import beer,” he said. “The craftbeer shopper only spends 32% of their beer money on craft beer.”

This data falls in line with research on the millennial consumer, too. “Millennials are not the most brand-loyal consumers,” said Adrienne Nadeau, senior researcher for Technomic. “They crave variety.”

And providing that variety can be a long-term win for retailers, Tristano agreed. “It’s not loyalty to millennials; it’s frequency,” he said. “If you build the frequency, the habit with this generation, you can grow with them.”

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