Testing Your Hot Dispensed Beverage IQ

With convenience stores putting so much focus on the coffee category, consumers stop to buy coffee at c-stores more than they fill up their cars. Can your stores compete with industry leaders?

By David Bishop, Managing Partner, Balvor LLC

Most convenience store retailers appreciate the value that hot dispensed beverages provide. Retailers also recognize the importance of offering a quality product at a competitive price that is merchandised in an effective way that improves speed of service.

Beyond those elements there are the operational imperatives of consistently executing every day in a clean store and with a friendly smile. These are just some of the variables that go into building a successful hot dispensed beverage program in convenience stores today.

This marks the seventh year of the Balvor/Convenience Store Decisions Foodservice Survey and the focus of the 2014 survey is on the hot dispensed beverage category. Given the increasing competition that retailers face and the latent potential this category possesses in driving other foodservice segments, coffee has emerged as a crucial component of an effective foodservice program.

The survey raises various questions to consider and shares insights and perspectives on each.  Although this really isn’t a test, the results ascertained in this year’s survey should be used as a method to challenge the way you manage the foodservice business. Questioning why we do what we do is one of the best ways to improve the desired outcome.

What are your cup sales per store Per day? If you don’t know, figure it out as it’s probably the most important metric for this category along with penny profit per cup and cup sales growth. If you know this important number, then you can understand where your stores fall against our industry benchmarks, which are listed in the table below.

Keep in mind that although the industry average hovers around 150 cups per store per day, there’s a wide variation amongst retailers as you can see from the distribution of chains.

CHART1There are many factors that can affect this performance metric, ranging from proximity to a primary competitor, intensity of competition amongst retailers within a market or operating in geographies with lower consumer demand for coffee.

Regardless, the benefit of knowing your cup sales per store per day is that it can guide how you manage and grow the category more profitably. For instance, lower-volume retailers may want to evaluate manufacturer- or wholesaler-branded programs as many are turnkey with flexible options based on variables like available space and current sales levels. Their resources and expertise can help drive stronger results than attempting to develop your own program.

How well do you know your customers? Who are they? How often do they buy from you? Do they buy other things? These are just a few simple questions that can shed light on possible opportunities to explore or areas to address that can lead to incremental sales growth.

Balvor recently completed in-store intercepts with hot dispensed beverage customers at a regional convenience store chain that consists mainly of either commuter or neighborhood locations. Here are a few things that we learned from these customer interviews.

Chart1The habit-forming nature of coffee purchases at this convenience chain is evident when looking at the distribution of purchase frequency among coffee buyers. For instance, 70% of the customers reported buying coffee from the chain between four and five times during the past week, while another 5% indicated six or more hot beverages purchased from the chain over the same period. We’d characterize these two segments as heavy users who are likely very loyal to the chain.

Interestingly, only 3% of the customers bought once in the past seven days. This low percentage may indicate that the chain may want to consider more aggressively promoting its program outside of the store with signs or couponing. This could help build interest and drive trials, assuming there’s an effective promotional message, which ideally will lead to repeat purchases that grow the base business.

Beyond getting more customers through the doors more often, it appears that hot beverages could be a gateway to generating incremental purchases of ancillary products. We found that a customer buying a hot beverage only once in the past seven days purchased an average of 2.1 items. However, the average number of items in the basket grew as the hot beverage buying rate at the chain increased, as the chart below illustrates, peaking at three items for the most frequent coffee buyers.

Chart 3In terms of cross-merchandising, breakfast-related fresh foods, such as doughnuts, muffins and pastries, not surprisingly had the highest affinity with hot beverages overall. As customers became more frequent coffee buyers at the chain, so was their likelihood to have a breakfast food item in the basket. This suggests that a strong hot beverage program can help strengthen sales of complementary categories.

How much variety do you need? Managing coffee variety is critical to profitability as too much can lead to unnecessary product waste even with declining brew schedules and soft heat technology. Additionally, too broad of an assortment can take much-needed storage capacity away from the top-selling blend, leading to service delays and frustrated customers.

Convenience retailers offer an average of four coffee varieties. Top quartile retailers, who have daily cup sales of more than 200 per store, provide more than five options, on average, to their customers. While on the other end, bottom quartile retailers use just around three choices, but again are selling 49 or less cups per store per day.

When trying to answer the variety question, look beyond purchase data to analyze your current business as store shipments often masks issues only revealed through in-store observations. For instance, Balvor worked with a convenience store chain that offered a four-blend set and documented that two-thirds of the customers selected the house blend, one-third the highly-caffeinated blend, and one-fifth used the Kona blend. Of these customers, one-fifth poured multiple blends into their cup, but no one selected the decaf blend during the multiple days of fieldwork.

Chart4This shows that you really should understand what the customers are buying as opposed to what your stores are brewing or purchasing to determine how much variety your store needs. Learn if frequent coffee buyers select the same varieties each visit, as well as who’s buying the tertiary varieties. Retailers also should realize that expanding assortment doesn’t make sense for everyone. In fact, reducing variety could be the better option, especially for lower-volume retail locations, if you know what customers want.