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NATIONAL REPORT -- Convenience store customers everywhere have been waking up and smelling the rich improvement of coffee and hot beverage programs, now that the category is at the cornerstone of virtually all fresh foodservice initiatives and new store prototypes. Steering the offering in the direction of coffeehouse quality/loyalty is the ambitious goal of many in this new era of c-store java and its hot-beverage cousins.
"A complete hot beverage program could be considered a c-store must now, but only if you do it right," said Paul Servais, Kwik Trip Inc.'s retail foodservice director. "You have to have a quality program, great beans, great flavors and great condiments. We think of it as coffeehouse coffee without the coffeehouse price."
Speaking about CEFCO's "Your Way" hot beverage program, Brian Matlock, director of foodservice, similarly said, "It's like coffeehouse quality at a fraction of the price."
While many retailers in the convenience channel stick with a consistent program year-round, they recognize there are additional sales opportunities during the colder months. Kwik Trip, for example, sells 35 percent more cups of coffee in the prime winter season, according to Servais.
With that in mind, here are a few ways to leverage the hot beverage category during this especially opportunistic time of year:
• Spice up the offering with limited flavors, varieties. Coffeehouse beverage customers look forward to the limited-time flavors of the holiday season, and so, too, will c-store hot beverage customers. Last autumn, Wawa introduced a Pumpkin Spice flavor in its cappuccino offering, and it was so successful that this year it rolled it out as a limited-time coffee flavor, too, according to Mike Sherlock, director of foodservice.
"We've done other flavored coffees in the past, but this one really works, especially since we made it more of a theme within the store," he said. There were also limited-time pumpkin spice bakery items available as part of the flavor push.
Wawa's strategy includes bringing in new coffee varietals two or three times a year. "In the past, we brought in the 100-percent Columbian coffee; now it's a part of our permanent offering," Sherlock explained. Overall, Wawa strives to limit the number of hot beverage varieties to eight or nine at any one time, substituting country-of-origin varietals out when a new one is brought in and evaluating them on a comparison basis.
"We want to make sure that when we bring in a new variety, it brings in incremental sales and grows the category overall."
• Don't forget the accoutrements. Along with the usual cream and sweetener offerings, hot beverage accoutrements are expanding to include various spices, syrups, whipped cream and specialty sweeteners, all referred to now as condiments. The prime selling season is a good time to test out/trade out new offerings here, as well.
CSNews recently reported that Thorntons' condiment section was expanded in all stores to include PC-style creamers, bulk creamer, Coffeemate pump creamer and a "Hot Treat Center," featuring fresh whipped cream and chocolate, caramel, raspberry and white chocolate sauces.
Of course, space and maintenance of the section are always big concerns in c-stores, so the holiday time is a good time to test new condiments, offering them on a limited-time basis or only keeping year-round what works best.
Sherlock said Wawa is continually looking at condiments for areas of opportunity. "We constantly review what our choices are, making sure that if something new is brought in, we have enough customer demand for it."
• Make sure the flow is optimal. Just in time for this year's prime selling season, Kwik Trip reconfigured the coffee bar space and flow in all its stores, expanding cappuccino heads, as well as the area where customers can set their beverage down and make "Great Coffee, My Way," as its cup slogan reads.
At a time when hot beverage traffic is at its highest, c-stores should make sure they have a good flow in the area, especially since most are completely self-serve for the customers.
At Wawa, "we empower our customers," said Sherlock, who noted that the company breaks the area into three sections: the brewing station, the pour station and the condiment aisle. Set up behind the counter, the brewing station is where associates brew the coffee and make sure they're keeping up with the pace of customer demand, ensuring coffee is at its freshest and also, interacting with the customers, especially during the important daypart, according to Sherlock. The pour station and condiment aisle are both geared to the customer servicing him or herself, and are ample and well-maintained for heavy traffic times.
For more tips on getting the most out of the hot beverages category this time of year, check out the December issue of Convenience Store News.