The forecourt sector is the key to driving growth in the UK soft drinks category, according to a new report.

The latest Britvic Soft Drinks Review found that category sales grew by 15.3% to £3.3bn in 2023, while volumes were up by 3.0% and units increased by 3.3%.

The role of the forecourt channel was highlighted in the report, with an opportunity to grow sales by nearly £5,000 per outlet per year identified. It found that if the frequency of sale of soft drinks, which are bought on more than a quarter (29.5%) of forecourt visits, rose to one in every three baskets, this could unlock an opportunity worth £36m for the channel.

“There’s no denying the important role soft drinks are playing in the convenience sector,” said Ben Parker, retail commercial director at Britvic. “But it’s crucial that retailers have a solid understanding of the fundamental reasons why people are buying soft drinks. Only then will we together be able to fully tap into the opportunities on offer through soft drinks and reap the rewards.

“Take forecourts for instance, an area within convenience which is changing beyond recognition,” added Parker. “Despite soft drinks driving significant growth within that sector, there are still a number of opportunities that are ripe for the taking for those in the know. Research shows, for example, that people are twice as likely to be looking for an energy boost in forecourts than they are when they visit outlets in the wider convenience retail sector. Despite this, the number of shoppers who buy energy drinks from forecourts remains surprisingly low, with only 2.1% of forecourt shoppers currently buying them. There’s an opportunity here for the taking.”

Across the entire convenience category, stimulant energy delivered growth worth £181.5m last year, and was the second fastest growing sub-sector at 23.7%, behind sports drinks which grew at 64.6% and took fifth place in the list of best-selling subcategories in convenience.

Retailers were advised to champion sugar-free energy drinks, merchandising them in prime impulse spots in-store and linking with social media to engage consumers.

“Demand for products perceived as being more natural or less processed is on the rise too,” explained Parker. “More than a third (34%) of people who do not consume energy drinks say there should be more natural alternatives available. We see significant potential in homebound post-work journeys and evening consumption for more natural energy drinks containing less or no caffeine, such as our Purdey’s Natural Energy Drinks. We’ve also worked to ensure our Rockstar Energy core range is HFSS compliant, and we’ve introduced no sugar variants to help further broaden the appeal of stimulant energy.”

New occasion opportunities were flagged by the report, including more people buying breakfast on the go. It found that 10% of all food-to-go missions in forecourts are for breakfast (double the number in wider convenience), and that a fifth (20%) of food-to-go new product development launched in the first quarter of 2024 was for breakfast.

“It’s promising to see more occasions opening up to the convenience retailers, such as breakfast,” said Parker. “It’s now about capitalising on those opportunities, while futureproofing ranges to ensure there is a strong pull for the younger generation of shoppers coming into the channel.”

The report also highlighted that stores could be doing more to tap into ‘meal for tonight’ occasions, with forecourts specifically are under trading. According to Britvic, shoppers are paying on average £10.44 for a ‘meal for tonight’ with a soft drink but are currently only spending £7.18 on the same occasion in forecourts