From morning lattes to after-school slushies, we’re now a nation that takes its beverages to-go, and retailers everywhere can benefit 

When was the last time you drank something sitting down? From morning lattes sipped on the walk to work, to Slush Puppies slurped by homeward-bound school kids, we’re now a nation that takes its beverages to-go.

As you’d expect, convenience stores haven’t been slow to cash in on the growing takeaway drinks trend. As a big driver behind food to go, coffee, tea, slush – and even smoothie bars – have helped turn local c-stores into drinks-to-go destinations.

It certainly seems to be making customers happy. According to data from HIM, customers rate their c-store takeaway drinks experience an impressive eight out of 10 on average – great news for the three-quarters of traditional stores that invest in this category.

Thanks to the continued dominance of the big high street chains, coffee is an incredibly popular choice in convenience.

Supreme beans

Say goodbye to polystyrene cups full of dubious brown liquid: the headline message from successful retailers 
is that customers 
will no longer stand for poor-quality drinks to go.

As Ian Lewis of Spar Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire says: “We’re seeing that even the white van men who come into the store want a consistent cup of quality coffee these days.”

Premium coffee brand Tchibo is on hand to meet their needs with the new Premio system, offering self-serve speciality coffee with 100% Arabica beans and the choice of fresh milk or cappuccino topping.

The machine has a 7in touchscreen, stylish curved front and can produce 100 cups a day.

“Arabica is known as the ‘aroma’ coffee bean,” explains Peter Brooks, head of concepts at Tchibo Coffee International.

“What we’re trying to do is to put great quality coffee in the hands of as many consumers as possible. In our traditional market we’re very strong in locations such as Hilton hotels, so we’re right at the top end of the category.”

He adds: “What we’ve done with Tchibo to go is to apply that quality to the high street, forecourts and convenience stores. So the same kind of coffee you’d get in the Hilton hotel, you can now get to-go in-store.”

He adds that in a crowded coffee market it’s important that retailers create maximum impact with their in-store coffee solution.

“The coffee system you choose must be impactful and easy to use,” he says. “Our Piccolo and new Premio systems have great presence and illuminated displays to attract consumers and make them simple to operate.”

“Takeaway coffee sales are growing,” says Henry Ellinger-Gane from Nescafé Professional.

“According to Allegra’s Project Café, more than a third of coffee drinkers purchased more take-away coffee in 2014 vs 2013 and the takeaway coffee market is now worth £1.6bn. That’s definitely a good indication of the strength of the coffee-to-go market.”

Out on the shop floor, offering coffee to go has definitely provided a serious shot to retailer Ian Lewis’ sales. Installing a Jack’s Beans machine in his Spar Minster Lovell store in Oxfordshire has seen sales surge to 120 cups a week. “Some weeks we’ll even do 150,” he says.

“That’s very impressive for what is basically a rural village store. Sometimes I think it will drop off during the warmer summer months, but it’s always continued to be popular. I’m not entirely sure how we do it – but somehow we do!”

The quality of his coffee offer might well have something to do with his success. Ian says that consumers now expect a premium approach to hot drinks to replicate what they’d get at a Starbucks or independent coffee shop.

“Before Jack’s Beans we had an instant hot drinks machine and we’d maybe do 30 cups a week,” he continues. “We did have the system before the branding arrived, which saw us do about 15 cups a day – so not a massive amount. Then when the Jack’s Beans branding hit it just went through the roof.”

The move has also meant an impressive 20% uplift across the food-to-go category as a whole.

“It’s obvious that takeaway drinks go hand in hand with food to go in our store,” he says.

“What we’ve seen is that people are driving past the store, come in for a cup of coffee and then buy something else as well. When you think of the 4,500 people who come through the store each week it doesn’t sound like it equates to much. But the key is that customers are coming in for that coffee and then putting a couple of other things in their baskets to buy. It all adds up.

“It’s done wonders for us. And because of that I’ve been really getting behind them as a company. I think the service across the board has been second to none.”

Coffee and tea are sold as drinks to wake up weary early morning commuters and HIM says that ‘stimulation’ is one of the main drivers for coffee-to-go purchase. However, Ian believes that the appeal of branded coffee might actually be down to the chance to claim some valuable ‘me-time’ during a typically busy day.

“If I say to my wife in the morning ‘Shall I make you a pot of coffee?’ she refuses, because she just wants to get a takeaway coffee to have on the train,” Ian says.

“She loves to sit there with her muffin and her cup of coffee and just relax for a while. If you’re sitting there with your kids at home you can’t relax and enjoy your drink in the same way.”

Whatever the appeal, it’s a similar success story for drinks to go at Gregory Cochrane’s Eurospar Binnian Fresh Foods and Fresh Food Centre in Kilkeel, County Down. Since putting in a premium-style bean-to-cup Barista Bar offer, sales in the category have gone up a whopping 400% over a year. “This makes the coffee area one of the most profitable square metres of the whole shop,” says Gregory.

To boost sales further and make sure that drinks to go continues to deliver, he’s also appointed a ‘coffee champion’ to oversee the fixture.

“She’s in charge of keeping the area clean and tidy, looking after the orders and sorting out all the wee treats around the machine. She also makes sure customers are getting the cup of coffee they want,” says Gregory.

“We have a checklist and a procedure so every night before we leave the shop we’re responsible for the clean down and then she comes in every morning and sets it up again.

“For us it’s really important that customers know she is the coffee champion. People will talk to her about the coffee, too, and ask her questions – which helps take me out of the mix a little to get on with other things around the store.”

Gregory says that the coffee offer, and the presence of a coffee champion, has helped turn the store into a drinks destination. He speaks with pride about customers who purposefully choose to make a visit to the store as part of their morning routine in order to pick up a coffee and a treat on their way back from the gym.

He maintains that it’s important that a member of staff is tasked with looking after the fixture. That way he can be sure that the offer is always well-stocked and looking neat and tidy. It’s an approach he extends to his store’s Slush Puppie selection as well.

“I like Slush Puppie because it gives a different dimension to the store and brings in another kind of customer,” he says. “But again, you have to have someone who’s taking ownership of it and keeping it neat and clean – it really does come down to ownership.”

Graham Spenser, sales manager at slush sales and rental company Snowycones, says that its family-friendly appeal means the slush drinks sector is attracting plenty of interest from retailers. “We’re in year six of trading now and we’re finding that the industry is growing very rapidly,” he says.

“Corner shops and small cafés are now looking at products that can get the whole family involved and offer something that works for kids and teenagers, as opposed to just tea and coffee.”

The company offers outright purchase on a Snowycones machine, or a lease scheme through which c-stores can rent the equipment by the month. Spenser adds that the machine costs about £15 to £20 a year to run and can fit into all kinds of shop spaces: the largest fixture is 40cm square and 80cm high.

Meanwhile, Justin Whittaker, owner of MJ’s Premier in Richmond Avenue, Royton, has a different approach when it comes to serving up slush to customers.

He’s installed a self-service slush fixture into the ‘kids’ zone’ in his store, where kids can make their own slush exactly how they like it.

“It would be much harder looking after it from behind the counter,” he says. “As it is, they can choose their own flavours so we don’t have to spend the whole time asking ‘Do you want a bit of red?’ ‘Do you want a bit of blue?’.

“Making it self-service is basically saving you lots of time – and the kids are getting exactly the product that they want and get to choose their own colours.”

Ice choice

While adults flock in-store to pick up a takeaway tea or coffee, investing in slush is a surefire way to get customers’ kids in on the act as well.

As with hot beverages, much of the appeal for retailers is the way that the product offers maximum margins from a minimal floor space. Graham Spenser from Snowycones says that the Snowycones system offers an 80-90% profit margin, beating traditional c-stores’ product lines such as newspapers and tobacco.

The company offers outright purchase on a Snowycones machine, or a lease scheme through which c-stores can rent the equipment by the month. Spenser adds that the machine can fit into all kinds
of shop spaces: the largest fixture is 40cm square and 80cm high.

Peter Brooks, head of concepts at Tchibo Coffee International, says he is a “big fan” of self-service. “I think that people want to finish their coffee the way they want it. Gone are the days of vending machines that give customers an auto-dose of sugar in their coffee. They might want half a sugar, or two sugars, or some sweetener instead.”

Of course, kids being kids, the million dollar question is: when you’re turning an area over to hordes of slush-crazed children, aren’t you asking for a massive mess?

“That’s the single most common question I get asked about the fixture!” laughs Justin. “Don’t forget, you’re making 70% margin off this product, so if you have to get a kitchen towel and wipe up a bit of slush every now and again, it’s not really a huge problem.

“Having said that, we’ve had no major spills and the kids aren’t over-filling the cups. Funnily enough, it’s often the parents, when they get involved, that start making a mess. The kids take their time with the drinks – they don’t want to waste any of it.”

Justin says that the slush is perfect for bringing in the after-school crowd, because it’s often used as a bargaining tool by stressed-out parents. “What happens is in the morning the parents say: “No – you’re not having the slush now, but if you go to school you can have one later. And I can promise you that that child will definitely be back in at tea time to get their drink. I’d say it’s something that every single store should do if they have the room.”

Retailers mostly agree that the best place for the fixture is the front of the store, this way the store can make the most of cross-merchandising snacks and other to-go items such as sandwiches and newspapers, alongside the offer.

However, if a store is really stuck for space, manufacturers can offer solutions which simply sit at the till, such as Nescafe & Go.

“A lot of our customers find space for the Nescafé & Go coffee machine on their counter as this not only has excellent visibility, but also allows you to upsell to your customers when they are at the till,” says Nescafé professional’s Ellinger-Gane.

“We’ve designed the new machine based on consumer feedback on what designs and colours stand out the most, so wherever it’s positioned in your store the machine will attract the eye of your customers.”

Takeaway drinks go high tech

Drinks machines are no longer tucked away in the corner of c-stores: fresh formats and new propositions are helping to put them centre-stage.

Costa’s latest in-store coffee solution offers a mix of upfront branding and technology, including a system for spreading the coffee-shop aroma and sounds around the retail space to make sure customers can’t resist.

“We wanted to recreate the atmosphere of one of our High Street Costa coffee shops so we worked with eMixpro, the experts in online mixing and mastering (they’ve worked with U2 and the Rolling Stones) to create an evocative soundtrack complete with the tinkle of a spoon against a china cup,” says Scott Martin, founder of Costa Express.

Manufacturers are also aping the coffee shop experience through new ways to pay. Expresso Plus now offers contactless payment to create even more convenience for the customer.

“It’s thought that contactless payment uplifts consumption by 15% compared with cash, and the average spend is 36% higher when cashless payment is used compared with cash transactions on the same machines (AVA Census Findings 2015),” says Rebecca Croft from Expresso Plus.

“At Expresso Plus all of our machines offer cashless payment options such as contactless card readers and Apple Pay, allowing retailers a wide range of customer payment options.”

Elsewhere, cross-merchandising food and coffee is commonplace, and now Pelican Rouge is joining the dots between coffee at home and the in-store experience.

“We’re about to launch a range of 250g retail coffee packs in August [which won the Best New Idea at this year’s NCS]. So instead of ‘buy six coffees get one free’, you can now offer ‘buy six – get a pack of roasted coffee free’. This gives customers a chance to trial the brand and boost sales in-store.”

Positioning aside, when it comes right down to it, retailers believe that the success of beverages to go is down to maintaining the right level of service.

And that means spending the time and effort to make sure customers can get what they need easily – and then leave happy – whether they’re seeking an ice-cold slush or a hot cup of tea.

“Basically, the customer doesn’t want any hassle, they’re looking for good service,” says Gregory. “People won’t want to shop somewhere that has run out of sugar or where the coffee machine is out of order. It’s the same with kids looking for slush. They’ve been thinking about the Slush Puppie they want to get on the way home since lunchtime. They’re not going to go somewhere that’s dirty, or where a flavour isn’t available.”

He continues: “Take the effort to get these basics right, and customers will come back time and again.”