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Soft drinks hard sell

Most caterers have been slow to adopt the merchandising techniques used by retailers for soft drinks. Often they are listed on menus in a low-key way, or stocked in the depths of refrigerated counter wells.

The merchandising approach is most at home in self-service sites, especially those which have a reasonable amount of space.

One operator making a determined effort to merchandise soft drinks is Gardner Merchant. As an incentive to its staff, it is runing a Power of Soft Drinks Awards in conjunction with Coca Cola & Schweppes Beverages (CCSB), in which standards of merchandising are judged. All staff at each of the winning 14 units will be awarded food blenders.

Joan Milner, the company’s national merchandising manager, says that soft drinks must be served chilled and that the “right” range must be on offer.

“It has to be limited,” says Milner. “If you try to offer all things to all people, it leads to a total jumble. So all our units have to stock the brand leaders and there is just a little bit of space for the particular favourites individual units may have.”

space management

Following the example of many supermarkets, Gardner Merchant uses a computerised space management programme to plan how glass-fronted cooler units should be stocked. The company also expects its sites to use point-of-sale and display material effectively, changing material regularly and ensuring it ties in with promotional periods.

Milner says the glass-fronted coolers supplied by Coca Cola predominate. She is not keen on selling soft drinks from refrigerated wells because they are “diabolical” for display. “All you can show is the ring-pull or the screw-top,” she says.

Chilled post-mix machines are used only on sites which have a high volume and which are open for longer than the standard two-hour lunch period. Their use is limited because they can cause queues in the lunch rush and require a substantial investment. Where they are used, Milner recommends ice placed nearby for customers to help themselves.

The bulk of Gardner Merchant’s soft drink sales are accounted for by carbonated drinks like Coca Cola, Diet Coke and Gini.

However, bottled water, including Perrier, Malvern, Evian and Vichy, also sells well, as do fruit juices in 9-10oz servings, with orange by far the most popular.

Milner adds that adult soft drinks, such as Aqua Libra, are also a growth area, particularly in London and the South. But she adds: “Whether or not they are just a fad remains to be seen.”

At motorway service group Pavilion Services, the approach to selling soft drinks in the company’s restaurants is very different from in its shops.

Cans of soft drinks are available in the shops’ coolers, but not in the restaurants. There, post-mix machines are used for carbonates and Coca Cola, for example, served in logo glasses. This is partly because the company wants to improve presentation in the restaurants – cans are seen as downmarket – and partly to avoid price comparisons.

Nigel Langley-Hunt, purchasing executive at Pavilion Services, believes novelty and colour help sales. So drinks such as the Mistic range, which includes black cherry and tangerine and orange in brightly coloured bottles, score well, as does Clearly Canadian in blue-tinted bottles.

While the popular carbonated drinks are sold through post-mix dispensers, mineral waters and other soft drinks are offered in refrigerated wells. Langley-Hunt says: “We don’t find wells reduce sales. Whether you get a facing or not depends on how crowded the well is.”

Pavilion is fussy about the point-of-sale and display material it will use. “If we weren’t careful it would look like a jungle,” says Langley-Hunt. “We prefer to rely more on the attractive display of the products.”

Soft drinks manufacturers can be a source of help and advice about merchandising their products. Dominating the market are two companies with huge expertise: CCSB, whose brands include Gini, Lilt, Sunkist and Tab, and Britvic Soft Drinks with Pepsi, Tango, Seven-Up and Britvic fruit juices.

Branded glass-fronted coolers tend to be less common in catering than retail, but are useful for caterers with sufficient space. They cost about £600 for a single-door model and £750 for a double-door.

Products displayed at eye-level tend to sell best, so Britvic’s 60 specialist soft drinks advisers recommend caterers move drinks onto the top shelf of refrigerated displays and as close to the tills as possible. Paula Patmore, merchandising sales manager for Britvic, advises using “shelf talkers” – signs, tent cards or hanging mobiles – if drinks are stocked in wells.

Retailers often take a scientific approach to the number of facings they give to each product, but this is harder to do in catering, says Patmore, because: “there is very little proven statistical information in leisure and catering sites”.

With CCSB estimating that the soft drinks market has grown by a third since 1986, it is clear that caterers have much to gain from adopting the bolder selling techniques of retailers. n

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