As consumers emerge from an unprecedented socially distant winter, fatigued by a year varying with levels of COVID quarantine, the warm weather will undoubtedly be met with a flurry of out-of-home activity and cold beverage consumption. This means it’s prime time for vending and micro market operators to take stock of what consumers will be seeking to quench their thirst.
The ripple effects of COVID-19 have forced a shift to at-home consumption that will most certainly have a lasting impact on the food and beverage habits of consumers for years to come. With changing consumer behavior come new demands, which is why it’s especially important for operators to key into what c-stores and other away-from-home competitors are merchandising and keep in close touch with customers to gauge their preferences – and deliver.
New York City-based Beverage Marketing Corp., a research firm focused on the global beverage industry, is set to release its annual report in June, which, along with other market data, will provide a much-anticipated authoritative picture of beverage landscape throughout the pandemic.
In the meantime, it is safe to speculate that some of the most prominent trends that have taken shape in recent years will continue – namely healthier refreshment and increased variety.
Millennial consumers have been the driving force behind the shift away from traditional soft drinks for about a decade. As a result, bottled water overtook carbonated soft drinks as the largest beverage category by volume in the U.S. five years ago and grew again in 2019.
The category’s core characteristics — convenient, healthful, natural and calorie-free — enduringly appeal to consumers, according to BMC.
Additionally, the market research firm found that, though still comparatively small in size, niche segments once again outperformed most traditional mass-market ones in 2019. Value-added water, energy drinks and ready-to-drink coffee in particular moved forcefully in 2019. Value-added water charted an 8.5% increase in volume and a 10.6% increase in retail dollars.
Automatic Merchandiser caught up with some suppliers in these niche categories for their take on how they’re satisfying contemporary tastes in vending and micro markets and how they’ve fared in the midst of the pandemic.
As locations look to offer their employees or customers more innovative and healthier options, Karma Water checks many of the boxes, by combining the appeal of pure water with added functional benefits.
The Pittsford, NY-based company’s proprietary Karma Cap stores vitamins, probiotics, nutrients, antioxidants and superfruits until the consumer releases them at the time of consumption with a “peel, push and shake.” This ensures maximum efficacy of the ingredients compared to many other RTD beverages, which Karma’s founders – two beverage industry veterans – say can degrade over time as their ingredients sit in water waiting to be purchased.
“This has become even more relevant in today’s [pandemic] times, as there has never been a greater need for companies to offer products that truly fit the ‘better for you’ category while also offering immune support,” commented Karma Water vice president of sales Brad Coleman. “Karma is not a ‘me too’ product proposition like so many other options in today’s marketplace and is unlike anything else these companies currently offer in their beverage selections. We help create a point of difference in their offerings.”
Karma’s Probiotic Water line delivers probiotics at full efficacy for immune support and digestive nutrition, using the patented Ganeden BC30 strain. It is shelf stable for ease of transport and merchandising. It also includes 100% RDA of vitamins A, E, B3, B5, B6 and B12, in strawberry lemonade, blueberry lemonade, berry cherry, kiwi melon and tropical coconut varieties.
Karma Wellness Water provides 110% RDA of seven core vitamins, as well as added nutrients, antioxidants and superfruits in pineapple coconut, elderberry starfruit, orange mango and passionfruit green tea flavors.
All Karma waters contain no artificial sweeteners, coloring or preservatives and are sweetened with 85% stevia and a pinch of cane sugar. Each 18-fl.oz. bottle contains only 20 calories.
Coleman added that Karma is shifting to a DSD model across the country to “go deep” in all markets and be able to service all accounts.
A digital marketing ad campaign running on Youtube, Instagram and Facebook encapsulates the Karma brand at YouTube.
Clifton, NJ-based Twinings North America Inc. is leveraging the brand power of its traditional hot teas to appeal to on-the-go consumers with a novel take on enhanced water.
“When we talk about healthy hydration, we showcase the Twinings Cold Infuse Collection,” said Kristin Overstreet, national account manager of Twinings’ away-from-home business.
Cold Infuse herbal enhancers offer a sophisticated way to liven up still or sparkling water. Each individually wrapped silky infuser sealed for safety and freshness includes fruits and herbs, specially blended to brew in cold water for a lightly flavored refreshing drink. It’s as simple as dropping the infuser into a 16.9-fl.oz. bottle of cold water, waiting five minutes, shaking occasionally and enjoying.
Available in strawberry and lemon, mango and passionfruit, watermelon and mint, Cold Infuse herbal water enhancers are all natural, with no artificial sweeteners and are sugar free and low in calories. Each box contains 22 envelopes, and four boxes are packed in each case. A 20-second video showcases the infusion process at twiningsusa.com/collections/cold-infuse.
Another prevailing trend is that consumers from all walks of life have become specialty coffee connoisseurs and consume it hot and cold throughout the day. This has carved a growing niche for ready-to-drink coffee beverages in retail, and convenience services. It’s quite possible that the work-from-home movement and COVID-19 restrictions to curb the virus’s spread may make packaged, grab-and-go coffee drinks all the more in demand as consumers seek to minimize unnecessary trips to coffee shops that were once a daily routine and employers strive to keep them refreshed while safely onsite.
La Colombe has established a growing following for its nitrogen-infused ready-to-drink Draft Lattes and Cold Brew coffees in vending and micro markets over the past several years. These are similar to the on-trend drinks the Philadelphia-based company pours on draft in its cafés across the country.
“La Colombe and our line of RTD products want to be within arm’s reach of where consumers work, play and travel,” said La Colombe senior director of foodservice sales David Johnson. “This fits perfectly in the micro market and vending segments where we see the same trends that we do in retail as to what consumers are looking for. Real coffee, real milk and real ingredients, along with plant-based options, as consumers are looking for café-quality beverages that deliver on the demand for natural, clean beverages.”
Launched in 2016, La Colombe’s ready-to-to drink Draft Lattes blend nutrient-rich milk and cold-pressed espresso, infused with liquid nitrous oxide to create the full taste and frothy texture of a true cold-brew nitro latte.
Among the top sellers in vending and micro markets is Triple Draft Latte, which packs three shots of cold-pressed espresso for a stronger jolt and is lactose-free, along with Vanilla and Mocha Draft Latte varieties. All are minimally, naturally sweetened with cane sugar and best enjoyed chilled. Other workplace favorites are Oatmilk Original Draft Latte and Oatmilk Vanilla Draft Latte, which meet growing demand for a dairy-free alternative.
Also popular in the convenience service channel is La Colombe’s milk- and sugar-free Cold Brew made with single-origin Brazilian coffee. Fresh-roasted, specialty-grade coffee is steeped in steel wine tanks, free from oxygen, and brewed overnight before being pressed. It is double-filtered for a smooth, clean sip, with strong coffee flavors and a natural sweetness.
Rounding out the La Colombe RTD lineup are Doubleshot Draft Latte, Draft Chocolate Milk, Oatmilk Caramel Draft Latte, Cold Brew Columbian, Cold Brew Milk & Sugar and Nitro Cold Brew Lemon, along with seasonal Hazelnut, Pumpkin Spice and Peppermint Mocha varieties.
“We have seen success in numerous different types of accounts from white- and blue-collar locations, to pantry locations, as well as the home-delivery segment business,” Johnson reported. “As our retail business has grown over the past three-plus years, these same consumers are now looking for La Colombe in their micro markets or pantry locations where they work.”
MEXICAN FAVORITE WITH MASS APPEAL
Novamex Brands divisional fountain and vending manager John Hall emphasized that changing demographics are driving demand for the company’s Mexican soft drinks in the U.S., and vending machines and micro markets are no exception. He underscored the opportunity with Hispanic consumers expected to represent 31% of the U.S. population by 2060, according to the 2015 U.S. Census, and purchasing power among Hispanic consumers up 70% in the past 10 years, according to Statista’s TrendCompass 2020 report.
Novamex is the No. 1 brand in Mexican soft drinks and owns the Hispanic beverage market in the U.S., with a 73.9% share, according to 2020 MULO (multi-outlet and convenience) IRI data.
“Despite a drop in CSD demand among many major brands in 2020, Novamex brands delivered double-digit growth overall and strong double-digit growth in the vending channel,” Hall said. He added that Novamex CSD brands are growing six times faster than the CSD category with 13.7% annual growth versus the 1.95% for the CSD category, according to Nielsen/IRI Food Channel 2014 through 2020.
Beyond its cultural appeal to Hispanic consumers, Hall attributed Novamex’s continued growth in the U.S. to its beverages being sweetened with real sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup, and the leading Novamex brands – Jarritos and Sidral Mundet – containing only all-natural flavors.
Interestingly, he added, the Jarritos “heavy consumers” drink almost every day, as follows: 59% Hispanic, 20% Caucasian and 17% African American. Of new consumers in 2019, however, 53% were non-Hispanic.
“That’s right! The majority of new Jarritos consumers (much of the growth) in 2019 were non-Hispanic,” Hall pointed out. Suggesting a new base of “foodies” and “millennials,” a recent poll of Novamex consumers found the No. 1 reason to purchase after trial is “great taste” and the second is it “stands out from the crowd.”
In the vending and micro market channel, Jarritos is available in 550ml. PET (18.6-fl.oz.) bottles that can be vended from traditional stack machines; 500ml. PET (16.9-fl.oz.) bottles; and in its iconic 370ml. glass bottles. Overall, the company sells a near-even split of glass and PET packages.
Over the past year, Novamex has signed national agreements with Vistar, USG and Compass Foodbuy, making its drinks readily available to convenience service operators nationwide. Novamex Mexican soft drinks are represented in the vending and micro market channel by Palm Harbor, FL-based G&J Marketing and Sales.
Vending and micro market operators have been riding the energy drink and functional beverage wave for several years and the pandemic did not slow the momentum for Boca Raton, FL-based Celsius Holdings Inc., according to vice president of vending and foodservice David Smaltz. He noted that 2020 sales of the company’s signature Originals energy drink line matched 2019 figures despite the setbacks to the industry from COVID-19.
One reason, according to Smaltz, is that Celsius stands out against other energy drink brands because it’s made with such “healthier” ingredients as ginger, guarana, green tea and seven essential vitamins. It contains no sugar, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives, colors or flavor. It’s also shelf stable.
The sparkling Celsius lineup sold in vending and micro markets is one of five formulations. It is formulated to provide essential energy and is clinically proven to accelerate metabolism and burn body fat when exercising. The newest flavor, launching in May, is Tropical Vibe, a summery blend of starfruit and pineapple. It will be supported by a multimedia campaign and point-of-sale signage. Tropical Vibe joins a dozen flavors, including Strawberry Guava, Peach Vibe, Fuji Apple Pear, Kiwi Guava, Grape Rush, Cola, and Peach Mango Green Tea.
“Celsius entered micro markets three years ago with companies that had a focus on health and wellness, but as consumers across a wider demographics demanded a clean, effective energy drink with cross functional benefits, Celsius is now found in tens of thousands of locations across the country,” Smaltz said. “While the velocity of our growth in micro markets has clearly been impacted by COVID-19 and the shutdowns in business across the U.S., our growth remains strong. Our year-over-year sales growth in the first quarter of 2021 for our channel is up 40%.”
Also propelling Celsius demand in vending and micro markets is its fast-growing brand recognition at retail, Smaltz added. Celsius’s U.S. store count now exceeds 82,000 locations nationally, including Target, CVS, Walmart and 7-Eleven, growing 18,000 from the same point in 2019, with additional expansion planned into 2021. It is also available on Amazon and at fitness clubs nationwide.
“We’ve kept our foot on the gas throughout the pandemic,” Smaltz said. “In our unique case, retail DSD escalated over the past year in more outlets than ever. It’s the No. 3 energy drink on Amazon and the highest consumer recognition the brand has ever had. I credit the retail side for the profound growth in vending and micro markets that has kept us growing in the segment even in the middle of a pandemic.”
Smaltz said the next evolution for Celsius is to “fill in all the whitespace” in the U.S. with distribution to be everywhere people want it. In 2020, Celsius secured additional distribution agreements with partners PepsiCo and Keurig Dr. Pepper, among others, further expanding availability to new regions as Celsius builds out its national distribution network, which now includes over 150 regional direct store delivery partner distribution centers. ■