U.S.A. - Cold beverage producers, many of whom made dramatic changes to their lines last spring, generally have settled down to meet the evidently unslaked thirst of the American public for an ever more varied range of styles and flavors.
Vendors, as always, stand to benefit from strong demand for a wider range of products, but also must grapple with storage and transport issues, pricing questions, and the continuing challenge of keeping the number of line items in inventory under some kind of control.
Vending has been an important channel for the major soft drink franchises for well over half a century. Their success with branded machines has inspired generations of alternative-beverage marketers successful in other channels to launch branded vender programs of their own, from juices and juice drinks through sports drinks and small-package bottled waters to "ready-to-drink" teas.
These developments have affected, and in turn been conditioned by, vending machine design and public expectation. Four decades ago, packaged-juice machines vended small cans holding from 5.5 to 7 fl.oz. of juice or "nectar." That portion size could be sold for the same price as a single-serving can of soft drink.
The arrival of a new generation of juices and juice-based drinks in 11.5 or 12-fl.oz. cans, which could be vended through conventional canned cold drink venders but at a higher price than soft drinks, reflected a real change in American preferences and consumption patterns. The reach-in coolers of convenience stores and vending machines were primary beneficiaries of the new "grab-and-go" demand.
To address that demand, formerly uncomplicated cold canned drink venders had to incorporate multiprice technology. Their pricing flexibility soon thereafter was enhanced by the widespread adoption of bill validators, which found their first successful merchandise vending application on cold beverage machines.
This, in turn, paved the way for the increase in package sizes and styles that characterized the last decade, and which continues today. Flavored teas in 16-fl.oz. bottles, similarly upsized juice/juice drink offerings and the nascent small-package water segment with its common half-liter (about 17 fl.oz.) bottle, demonstrated that people would pay more for a larger portion of a popular drink, if they recognized the tradeup as adding value.
Convenience stores and fast-food restaurants offered very large cup soft drinks, demonstrating a demand for larger portions of soft drinks. Postmix cup venders attracted new attention by their ability to deliver 16/18 fl.oz. drinks. The soft drink giants responded with the 20-fl.oz. plastic bottle, which won out over 16-fl.oz. glass as the next step in soft drink packaging. Offering higher perceived value and better margin, the 20-fl.oz. PET bottle provides another consumer benefit: it is reclosable, and thus appeals to a public which has become accustomed to consuming refreshments while on the road.
These developments again prompted extensive equipment redesign. As conventional can venders were completing the transition to multipricing and banknote acceptance, several glass-front designs appeared. The one that captured attention was commissioned by Snapple to merchandise its wide range of bottled flavored teas by displaying their eye-catching labels to best advantage.
The original "Snapple" model, engineered by ECC, had six shelves, nine columns wide, and its ability to drop a bottle several feet without ever breaking one lent visual appeal to the purchase experience. Continually improved, and modified to accept taller bottles by its reconfiguration to five shelves, it has evolved into Dixie-Narco's "BeverageMax."
This spring's regional trade shows provided an overview of new equipment designs that make it easier to dispense a variety of package styles, and of new products entering the vending market.
An important new player is Red Bull North America, which markets the beverage that launched the current energy-drink boom. Exhibiting at the National Automatic Merchandising Association Spring Expo and the Atlantic Coast Exposition, Red Bull North America sampled its regular and sugar-free "Red Bull" varieties. The company also announced a vending program that will offer machine fronts and shim kits for Dixie-Narco, Royal Vendors and Vendo packaged cold beverage machines. The shims adjust the column width to accommodate the narrow 8.3-fl.oz. cans familiar to consumers of the product. The company pointed out that its large, devoted customer base is accustomed to paying $1.99 per can in other retail outlets, and thus a vend price of $2 will be recognized as equivalent value.
Also entering the vending arena is "Capri Sun" from Kraft Foods North America. Kraft sampled the well-known pouch-packed fruit beverages and demonstrated how they can be vended through a Jofemar "Multiplus" machine. The Spanish-made "Multiplus" holds product on swing-out horizontal trays equipped with belts that drive the selected item onto an elevator on the right side of the machine. Whether the shelf containing the chosen product is above or below waist level, it always is delivered gently to a door at a convenient height, about waist level.
Attracting attention at the spring shows was Automatic Products international, ltd.'s "Roboquencher" glassfront beverage vender, which features an unusual two-axis robotic retrieval system to deliver a packaged cold beverage gently, right side up, from any position on any shelf. Designed for optimal loading speed, the machine was showcased this spring as a vehicle for milk beverages as well as soft drinks (the principal beneficiaries of its soft-landing vend mechanism) and all types of alternative beverages.
Dixie-Narco's popular "BeverageMax" glass-front 45-select cold drink vender was joined by a compact stablemate, the "Baby BeverageMax" (Model 3561). Its shelves are six columns wide, so it can display 30 selections; total capacity is 240 packages. Like the full-sized "BeverageMax," it is supplied with a health shutoff control, so it can vend today's popular milk beverages.
The Vendo Co. showed a preproduction model of a novel multipackage cold drink design, the "Vari-Pak," which can accommodate a variety of can, bottle and drink box formats including Tetra-Pak's "Prisma" aseptic boxes in 11.2- and 16-9-fl.oz. sizes. It attains this versatility by holding product in interchangeable modules. The machine on display at the NAMA Spring Expo was branded for Bravo! Foods' new "Slammers" shelf-stable flavored milks, which come in 11.2-fl.oz. "Prisma" packages. Plans call for offering the design in four models to meet a wide range of location volume needs. "Vari-Pak" is slated to ship in September (see VT, April).
Also exhibited by Vendo at both spring trade shows was the "V21," which is designed to simplify the process of switching machines between cans and bottles in the field. Its columns can be adjusted for packages of different widths without carrying shims or other accessories into the field.
The availability of equipment readily adaptable to an ever-wider range of beverage types and package styles has enabled operators to meet demand spurred by major marketing initiatives. The strength of the major soft drink companies' advertising and sales promotion campaigns over the last quarter-century has encouraged the producers of other beverages to emulate them, developing nationwide campaigns designed to communicate with key consumer constituencies. Vendors today are positioned to respond to the success of these initiatives.
The diversity of tastes to which today's cold-beverage marketers aspire has put a premium on careful ongoing analysis of sales, location by location, and on the ability to fine-tune product mix continually. Technology is providing improved methods for doing this, too.
Vending has evolved from a niche business offering a narrow range of product formats to a mainstream retailing technique that can provide virtually any single-serving item. The cold beverage categories have been a primary beneficiary of this trend in recent years, and the end is not yet in sight.