A Clean Serve

COVID-19 nudges the future of self-serve beverages in a new direction.

A Clean Serve

October 2020   minute read

By: Sara Counihan

Needless to say, COVID-19 has changed almost every aspect of the convenience store experience. Gone are the days of customers strolling into your corner c-store, sans face mask, to grab a coffee from a carafe with some creamer and sugar they add themselves without these thoughts popping in their head: “How many people have touched this coffee handle?” “Should I use a napkin to grab the creamer?” “Hand sanitizer is happening as soon as I get back into my car.” “Am I staying six feet away from the next person in line?”

Retailers are well-aware that self-service beverages are a target for customer unease as of late, and recent data reiterate this. In the second quarter of 2020, sales of dispensed beverages were down 32% compared with the year-earlier quarter, according to NACS CSX data. April was the hardest hit month, with dispensed beverages down 38% year over year. June showed slight improvement, with dispensed beverages down 23% year over year.

“The data from April to June tell the story from when the COVID-19 panic hit and there were few dispensed beverage options for customers to when most places were back to offering some dispensed options, but consumers were still a little wary,” said Chris Rapanick, director of business development for the NACS Research team.

The (Unexpected) Long Haul

“Retailers are remaining flexible given the longevity of COVID and the frequent changes in local or state policies,” said Jeannie Amerson, principal consultant, loyalty and customer engagement at Impact 21, a retail consulting firm that works with leading convenience store clients.

It seems like the customer need [for self-serve beverages] is outweighing the concern.

Indeed, when Americans began quarantining in late March, the impression was that the coronavirus would be a serious threat for only a couple months. Either due to state or local orders or to err on the side of caution, many retailers completely shut down their self-serve beverage offerings at the end of the first quarter. Some others never shut them down.

One large convenience chain has not changed the way it has offered self-service beverages since before the pandemic. All self-service items are accessible on the sales floor, and the chain does not have plans to change its method. It’s business as usual for the company. 

“In some instances we are seeing customer need outweighing the concern in certain underserved markets where convenience stores may be the only game in town and where COVID cases were minimal,” Amerson said.

As states began reopening in late May and consumers attempted to reclaim some sense of normalcy, retailers who had paused their programs began offering self-serve beverages once again. In late March, Altoona, Pennsylvania-based Sheetz had suspended all self-serve beverage and self-serve coffee offerings, as well as self-serve bakery items. The company has since opened self-service beverage, coffee and bakery offers, but the bakery items are now individually wrapped inside the glass bakery cases. Likewise, Wawa, Pennsylvania-based Wawa also shut down self-serve coffee and beverages in March but reopened these services in May.

The lack of official guidance at the federal level on food and beverage handling means it’s been up to individual states and localities to issue guidance, if they choose to at all. As a result, it’s been a mixed bag in terms of how self-serve beverages are offered to customers.

“As far as I’ve seen, it’s business as normal in terms of on-premise beverages. … I don’t feel there is a middle ground for self-serve beverages. …  it’s all or nothing,” said Matt Saitta, manager of category development, Impact 21.

Some retailers are attempting to implement extra safety precautions in their self-serve beverage programs. Certain retailers with foodservice programs are keeping lids and straws behind the counter to reduce the risk of customers handling these items and placing them back. Wawa added tissue paper for customers to use to grab handles and wrapped stirrers at the stations, and if customers desire, Wawa employees can make customers’ beverages instead.

“I think mandated masks have made customers more comfortable with self-service beverages as well. You don’t feel as if people are breathing around the area, and they feel more protected,” said Amerson.

Safety First

Other retailers had customer safety in mind pre-COVID-19. La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip coordinates the size of beverage cups with their corresponding lids by making each cup and lid size a different color. This takes the guesswork out of matching the correct size lid to each cup and decreases the chances that a customer will handle multiple lids in search of the correct fit. For customers grabbing a coffee at York, Pennsylvania-based Rutter’s, they’ll find the lids inside a drawer-like dispenser next to the cups. There isn’t a way to place the lid back into the drawer if it’s the wrong one.

The one aspect of self-service beverage programs that has not resumed for most retailers is refill programs. Sheetz; Wawa; Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s and many other retailers have paused their refill programs. However, at Sheetz, if customers show their refill mug to the cashier, the store will honor the refill price for a fountain beverage.

One of the most recognized retail refill programs, Starbucks refills, was paused in early March due to COVID-19, and although Starbucks has since released a reusable cup for purchase, customers cannot refill them at stores.

We have to stop thinking of ourselves as last year’s c-store. We are next year’s convenience experience.

Designing the Future

With customers’ heightened expectations about health and safety, what does that mean for the future of self-serve beverages in the convenience industry?

According to Joe Bona, a c-store designer, it’s up to the retailer to take the reins.

“In my view, customers expect retailers to have figured out how best to provide some degree of safety during this current crisis and not leave it to themselves to only follow the CDC guidelines,” said Bona, president of Bona Design Lab Inc.

Bona believes consumer demand for self-serve items has not been diminished but is on a temporary hold until retailers and manufacturers find more innovative solutions that alleviate consumer fears about safety.

“This is an area where I believe we’ll see an acceleration of technology advance across all platforms, including contactless dispensing machines to minimize human touch, while still allowing for highly customizable choices,” said Bona.

C-store designer Mike Lawshe concurs with Bona and pointed to the drive-thru experience at McDonald’s, where attendants no longer hold the cup under the fountain and fill the cup themselves. They simply place the cup under the fountain machine, which senses the cup size, and it takes care of the rest because in the McDonald’s world, seconds matter. That reason to implement this sort of technology wasn’t as meaningful to the c-store industry, so the industry was slow to adopt this technology, if any retailers did at all, said Lawshe.

“The hesitation behind it was that it is expensive,” said Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a c-store and retail industry design and consulting firm. However, that type of technology is exactly what the c-store industry needs to keep up with changing consumer demands, he said.

Coca-Cola has upgraded its Coca-Cola Freestyle machines to enable consumers to choose and pour drinks from the machine via their phones. No app download or account creation is required. “Holding your camera up to the display auto-scans a QR code, which immediately connects to the cloud and brings the Coca-Cola Freestyle user interface to your phone,” explained Michael Connor, chief architect, Coca-Cola Freestyle, in a press release. “You then select from the full menu of brands and flavors—and pour. The idea is to be safe, seamless and fun.”

“Touch-free and frictionless was the answer, is the answer and now is going to be a necessity,” said Lawshe. “We have to stop thinking of ourselves as last year’s c-store. We are next year’s convenience experience.”

Bona agrees that the time for retailers to implement technology to address consumer demands is now. “Convenience operators have always been at the forefront of figuring out how to transact faster, better and more efficiently, and technology is what will drive the industry forward.”

Self-Serve of the Future

Joe Bona, c-store designer and president of Bona Design Lab, believes that self-serve beverages are going to make a complete comeback in c-stores, but they will be back in a different way.

Bona has envisioned a self-serve coffee station that features bean-to-cup machines with a touchscreen that customers use to choose their type of coffee and size, with handy wipes to clean the screen after use. The offer is replicated across the station with dividers in between to give customers distance. “Then we thought, what if technology could work where you don’t have to manually touch the machine, but you could use your phone to activate the machine?” said Bona. The idea is to complete a coffee order via phone and then wave the phone in front of the machine, which dispenses the coffee exactly as ordered. “It’s really contactless,” he said.

For the condiment area of self-serve, Bona envisions a self-serve station that rationalizes the number of choices and reduces the number of options, which then minimizes potential time spent at the station.

“What if we took the traditional condiment island of a c-store and divided it into four, with a safety screen in between each station?” suggested Bona.

He says the same condiment offer would be presented at each of the four sections of the island. There would be hand sanitizer at each section, as well as a digital screen showing the customer how the store would like them to interact with that area. He also suggests any condiment that is dispensed, such as creamer or sugar, be digitally activated by touchscreen or by phone activation like the self-serve coffee stations.

“The design would look much more purposeful and thoughtful and allow self-serve areas to operate in a safer environment,” said Bona.

Image courtesy of Bona Design Lab

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