The Beer Cooler of the Future

Experts predict what the beer assortment and beer-buying experience of the future will be.

The Beer Cooler of the Future

August 2023   minute read

By: Kate Bernot

Convenience store beer coolers have never been more vibrant or vital than they are today. Fully one-third of all malt-based alcohol sold in the U.S.—that is, beer and hard seltzers and flavored malt beverages—moves through convenience stores.

Such strong momentum shows no signs of slowing in the future, either. Despite fluctuations in the economy and shifting consumer behaviors in the aftermath of the COVID state of emergency, convenience store beer sales remained resilient during the first half of 2023. According to Beer Institute sales-to-retailer data, while grocery and liquor stores lost nearly a share point compared to the year prior, convenience stores held their share ground.

“All any of us in this industry need to know is: More beer is sold through the c-store channel than anywhere else,” says Peter Skrbek, CEO of Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery.

Deschutes is confident in the long-term necessity of convenience stores to not only its sales, but to its priority of reaching new customers. So confident, in fact, that in May the brewery launched its first beer exclusive to the channel. Symphonic Chronic, a 9% ABV double IPA, is available only in 19.2-ounce cans specifically designed for the convenience store shopper. The brewery’s national accounts manager, Jamie Semmelmann, spearheaded a strategy to ensure the beer is engineered to meet the specific needs of convenience store shoppers, from the liquid itself to the can design.

“It’s a very tailored product that is really trying to honor what the consumer who’s shopping in the c-store channel is looking for,” Skrbek says. “Jamie did a lot of hard work on the data front and on engaging our c-store partners on what they’re seeing work in the channel and what they want to see more of.”

Symphonic Chronic is a microcosm of the bright, dynamic future of the convenience store beer cooler. Those doors will continue to display more premium products, bolder flavors and more exciting single-serve options than they have in the past. Trend watchers expect no less than a bonanza in the alcohol cold box in coming years, driven by converging trends in product mix, consumer behavior and technology.

“Beer coolers used to be small, gold-plated doors that fog up. Now they’re becoming this almost craft shopping experience,” says Alan Radojcic, vice president of operations for Maintco Corp., a Burbank, California-based company that builds and renovates c-stores and grocery stores. “It’s creating this cool hangout space where you’ll go and spend more time. You’ll see the average sale-per-customer increase. … So that’s where stores will keep going.”

The next decade will continue to see a reshaping of the convenience store beer cooler towards an evolving destination for shopper trial, discovery and exploration. And the best news? That means the future beer buyer is ready to spend.

Pricing and Premiumization

On average, cooler doors of alcohol are generating more sales today than they have in years past. Retail sales of alcohol in convenience stores have increased 22% since fiscal year 2019, according to NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Services data analyzed by Joe Sepka, cofounder of Chicago-based 3 Tier Beverages. But volume has increased just 1% during the same time frame.

Premiumization is part of the explanation. But a more nuanced story of premiumization takes into account product assortment and packaging mix within the alcohol category. The good news is that those macro trends are likely to persist, even if economic headwinds also persist.

The first factor is product assortment, of which progressive adult beverages (PABs) have been the main story. PABs group together prepared cocktails, flavored malt beverages (FMBs), hard seltzers and wine-based cocktails into a fourth category beyond traditional beer, wine and spirits—sometimes referred to as the “flavor category.”

These are premium items on average priced 28% higher per equivalized case than all other beverage alcohol, Sepka says, and they’ve more than doubled their pre-pandemic share of convenience store sales. In 2019, PABs accounted for $2.1 billion in convenience store sales; in 2023, they’re on track to account for $4.6 billion. As PABs continue to increase their share of beer coolers, they’ll simultaneously drive revenue. It’s a similar story for other growing convenience store categories such as imported and craft beer.

You won’t necessarily see 12- and 24-packs of those higher-end categories.”

“In beer, consumers are drinking the same overall but paying a lot more money via price increase and shifting into more expensive offerings,” Sepka summarizes.

The second factor is packaging mix, which in recent years has moved heavily toward single-serve packages—a high dollar-per-ounce product.

“You won’t necessarily see 12- and 24-packs of those higher-end categories like craft, imports and FMBs, so the growth of those segments have really changed the landscape and are driving a lot of growth within singles,” says Danelle Kosmal, vice president of research at the Beer Institute.

As consumers have proven eager to try new flavor experiences—and willing to spend money to find them—stores’ beer coolers should reflect the shift not only in terms of product mix but in terms of design.

“If you walk in and see this really inviting beer cave, instead of going to a dedicated liquor store, you’re going to say, ‘My convenience store has the selection I want, so I’ll just go there and get everything in one go,’” Radojcic says.

Browsing Meets Convenience

Convenience stores thrive at the intersection of consumer behavior, product mix and physical design. The link between the three has always been strong, says Louisa Iarocci, an associate professor in the department of architecture at University of Washington in Seattle who researches retail architecture. Therefore, there’s one question that, above all others, will shape what those stores’ beer coolers look like in five or 10 years.

“How will we move and consume things in the future, and what role could the convenience store play in that?” Iarocci says.

There isn’t a singular answer. Historically, shopping quickly for desired items from known brands has been one chief motivation of the convenience store customer. But several factors, including the rise of electric vehicle charging, hybrid work schedules and the premiumization of the alcohol product mix, have turned convenience store beer coolers into a destination for discovery, delight and even browsing.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to a consumer,” says Darren Kite, managing director at Deloitte Digital.

Deloitte Digital research indicates that priorities regarding product mix and variety vary generationally and by income level: 61% of high-income Millennials said they would consider going to another convenience store if it had better convenience items, versus 35% of Baby Boomers. As Millennials continue to increase their spending power, it behooves convenience store beer coolers to reflect their desires. Those shoppers have never known a world without craft beer, highly flavored beverages and personalized choices. These preferences are already shaping beer selections. Imports and FMBs/seltzers have gained nearly 10 share points in convenience stores compared to 2019; craft beer has gained share as well. But with limited shelf space, convenience stores need to be selective about which innovations they designate space to. Driving high rates of sale in shorter periods of time may be the solution.

Those shoppers have never known a world without craft beer, highly flavored beverages and personalized choices.

“As with any kind of innovation, trendy flavors are going to be just that, so managing that in a very specific way will prove out winners,” says Brandon Thurber, director of scan data insights and media measurement at National Retail Solutions. “Stores need the variety because that helps drive the consumers in.”

Shoppers’ proclivity for trial and exploration is behind the rise of the single-serve can in convenience stores. A lower price tag creates a lower barrier for shoppers to try a new beer or other alcoholic drink compared to taking the plunge on six packs or multipacks, and with more craft, import and even RTD spirits entries into single-serve cans, there are more premium choices in that format than ever before.

Radojcic says there are ways to design stores to meet the needs of both exploratory and more traditional customers. Stores need to address existing shoppers and what he anticipates will be a growing cadre of “road warriors” who—thanks to hybrid or flexible work schedules—have time to spend browsing beer coolers while their electric vehicles charge outside.

“It’s all about product placement—you have the things you know your consumers are grabbing and going, they’re going to be close to the counter,” Radojcic says.

Armed with time and premium expectations, other customers are ready to be delighted with new products in beer coolers. The pandemic proved that brands can be built off-premise: The most successful craft beer brand launch ever, New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Juice Force imperial hazy IPA, launched last year primarily in convenience and grocery channels.

Retail Media and Beyond

The adoption of technology by convenience store shoppers isn’t likely to slow in the next decade. From retail marketing to apps to even augmented reality, those shifts will affect how shoppers approach the beer cooler.

For one, the shopping journey may begin before consumers ever set foot in the physical store. Customers who use a store’s mobile app or follow the store on social media may discover promoted beverages that drive them to the store. Integration with loyalty apps is expected to be increasingly critical to alcohol brands’ partnerships with convenience stores.

“We’ll continue to see the broader digitization of the guest experience, with aspects around a critical mobile app and broader integration with rewards being paramount,” says Rob Harrold, retail store operations leader and managing director at Deloitte Digital.

This isn’t one-sided, though. As retailers have limited time to build brands, many expect producers to come to them with mutually beneficial promotions and retail media. It’s something that Deschutes is exploring with its Symphonic Chronic launch, with sweepstakes and other point-of-sale media that encourage drinkers to post about purchasing that particular beer at a particular retailer.

“All our retailers have their loyalty platforms … how do we engage the consumer with our product and our retailer so we get that earned media space and everyone owns it together? How does our product support that retailer/consumer engagement?” says Deschutes’ Semmelmann. “It’s about locking in that loyalty.”

Then finally, digitization may come to the physical coolers and endcaps themselves. It’s already at some retailers, particularly grocery stores such as Kroger, which partnered with Cooler Screens earlier this year to bring digital smart screens to 500 stores nationally. Those screens display advertisements and product information and allow shoppers to interact with the digital merchandising.

Some see a future where multiple technologies—loyalty-integrated apps, digital retail media, augmented reality—converge at the beer cooler.

“You want to be able to walk into the store and know where things are. In the future, with augmented reality, it’ll become even easier,” Radojcic says. “Maybe in an augmented way, it’ll give you a deal on a product it understands you want, and that will all be done through loyalty programs. This can get very catered.”

Regardless of whether augmented reality glasses come to pass, the beer section of the future will look much different than it does today.

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is a beverage alcohol reporter who regularly writes for Good Beer Hunting’s Sightlines and Craft
Beer & Brewing Magazine; she is also the director of the North American Guild of Beer Writers.

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