The figures are in and, if this was a school report card, the forecourt sector would be getting 10/10 for effort when it comes to selling soft drinks. First up, a bit of perspective. According to Britvic’s Soft Drinks Review 2017, the total value of soft drinks sales across the UK was £15.2bn, up 1.4% on the previous year. Within that, the value of soft drinks sales across the convenience and impulse sector was £2.1bn, up 2.3% ie ahead of the total market. Drill down further, and you reach the petrol and travel sector, where soft drinks sales last year were worth £358.5m, up an even better 4.9%.

According to Him data, buying a soft drink is the third main reason for people visiting a c-store and for 16-34-year olds it’s the main reason. A soft drink featured in 20% of all baskets in c-stores but in forecourts that figure rises to 23%. In fact, 10% of forecourt shoppers told Him’s researchers that buying a soft drink was their main reason for visiting that petrol station store.

Britvic’s report confirmed something we all know, that forecourts tend to over-trade in sub-categories such as glucose stimulants, with sales of these in ’petrol roadside multiples’ accounting for 37% of value sales against 30% in the total convenience sector. But, in the past year, data reveals that some shoppers are switching out of glucose stimulants into the water, water plus and carbonates categories. An indication, Britvic says, of shoppers looking towards healthier choices.

Health continues to be a massive trend in soft drinks. Manufacturers are committed to providing healthy alternatives think flavoured waters and low- and no-sugar drinks. Britvic alone has removed more than 20bn calories since 2013 in an effort to help offer consumers healthier drinks.

Last year, sales of diet soft drinks, including low-calorie and low-sugar drinks, drove absolute value sales growth across all the sub channels, increasing by 12.3% and adding £49m in value sales to the category (IRI).

This health-focused trend was particularly prevalent in the immediate refreshment segment, which enjoyed 12% sales growth in diet products, while standard experienced a slight decline.

Of course, the Soft Drinks Levy introduced last month put the spotlight on health, encouraging manufacturers to reformulate products to lower the sugar content of their drinks. As a result of this, the government says the tax began to work before it was actually increased. So much so, that the expected amount of revenue to be raised from the tax dropped from £520m to £240m. Money raised will be invested in giving school-aged children "a brighter and healthier future"; this will include programmes to encourage physical activity and better diets.

Tasty times

With taste the number one factor when it comes to choosing a soft drink, retailers need to offer shoppers a choice. After all, not everyone likes the taste of artificial sweeteners and some people prefer natural sugar. Indeed Britvic has stated that not all its soft drinks come in under the Soft Drinks Levy because the company classes itself as a ’leader in taste’.

A recent survey conducted on behalf of Rio Soft Drinks found that 64% of consumers would switch to a lower-sugar version of their favourite drink rather than have to pay more for a full sugar one. The company reckons that where there is not a no/low sugar version available, there’s a risk that these consumers will walk out without purchasing anything. However, while consumers are increasingly seeking low/no sugar options, they are still invariably demanding the choice between natural full sugar products and low/no sugar options, which tend to contain sweeteners.

"Consumers appear to be divided when it comes to sugar versus artificial sweeteners, and a significant proportion do not appreciate the taste of artificially sweetened products. This has been demonstrated by the consumer backlash towards some brands which have introduced artificial sweeteners to their ’full sugar’ products to avoid the sugar levy, and may represent an opportunity for brands that have maintained their natural positioning," says a Rio spokesperson.

Rio is a blend of tropical fruit juices and lightly sparkling spring water and the company has stated that it will not compromise on the Tropical (full sugar) variant’s natural credentials, nor its taste, as it believes consumers should be able to make their own choices when it comes to sugar versus artificial sweeteners.

"Within the convenience retail environment where both Rio Tropical (full sugar) and Rio Tropical Light (no added sugar) are ranged alongside each other, we are seeing comparable rates of sale," adds the spokesperson.

The latest campaign for Ribena focuses on taste using the strapline ’more blackcurrantier than a blackcurrant’.

To drive trial, the brand is giving away 2.6m samples of Ribena Blackcurrant 500ml bottles to consumers across the UK from now until September. Alongside the distinctively blackcurranty taste, consumers will also be given a 50p off voucher redeemable at all participating retailers to encourage purchase.

Meanwhile, Amy Burgess, trade communications manager at Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), says one of the key consumer groups driving innovation in the soft drinks category is millennials.

"This group is increasingly health conscious but is also looking for new and exciting flavour options, which are set to be a major innovation trend across all soft drink sectors in the next few years," she says.

"Millennials consume around 65% of flavoured carbonates in GB and in particular, flavoured colas. The flavoured cola segment is increasingly popular and is currently growing by 20% year-on-year (Nielsen)."

Already this year, CCEP has added Diet Coke Exotic Mango and Feisty Cherry, and Coca-Cola Zero Peach to its range, which were launched to help retailers tap into the growing popularity of light colas, which are worth £915.5m (Nielsen), and the growing consumer trend for exciting options.

"We also launched Sprite Cucumber, which is an exciting new venture into the flavour market for the brand. It will help retailers tap into the light flavour trend by offering shoppers more choice with a refreshing cucumber taste," says Burgess.

Water works

Water is the biggest category in soft drinks by volume, with 211m litres sold through the convenience and impulse sector last year, of which 22m litres were sold through petrol multiples. Sales of water plus water with added benefits added another 78m litres to the convenience category and five million litres through petrol mults.

Britvic reckons infused water will be the next big thing here as the category is already worth $1bn in the US. The soft drinks firm is already cashing in on the trend with the launch of Aqua Libra infused sparkling waters, described as offering "feel-good sparkle that tastes good". The Aqua Libra name may be familiar to some of you and that’s because there was an Aqua Libra drink way back in the ’80s. Then, it was way ahead of its time because it was made with fruit juice, carbonated spring water and botanical extracts (sesame seed, sunflower seed and tarragon to be exact), and it was said to have health benefits.

Today’s Aqua Libra is made simply with sparkling water infused with fruity flavours: Raspberry & Apple, Tangerine and Grapefruit & Pineapple; all in 330ml cans. The drinks contain no added sugar, sweeteners or artificial flavourings, meaning they fall below the Sugar Levy threshold.

Britvic says they go really well with food. Indeed the drinks were initially launched exclusively into Boots last autumn and were included in its meal-deal offer.

Russell Goldman, commercial director, foodservice and licensed at Britvic, says: "Across many categories in food and drink, we now often see smaller entrants re-setting category rules with products that are both tasty and healthy. Aqua Libra has purposely been designed by a small entrepreneurial team within Britvic and there is a lot of excitement surrounding this launch’s potential, particularly considering the recent introduction of the Sugar Levy. Aqua Libra is the perfect choice for those who often prioritise health, but want bubbles with taste without the sugary sweetness of other soft drinks."

Meantime, Barr Soft Drinks has just launched Strathmore Botanics, made with spring water infused with natural botanicals and fruit flavours, with zero calories and no added sugar.

Adrian Troy, marketing director at AG Barr, says water consumption is on the rise but flavour choice is limited: "Strathmore Botanics provides the perfect solution, combining exciting flavour trends with health and hydration."

The drinks come in three flavours: Orange & Mandarin, Apple & Elderflower and Pear & Elderberry, all in a bespoke 500ml PET bottle.

They performed well in taste tests with over 70% of shoppers saying they would buy the product, and two-thirds of shoppers saying that they thought the product was modern, premium and appealing.

Premium promise

Premiumisation is another big trend in soft drinks, particularly as so many adults don’t drink alcohol and are therefore looking for a decent soft drink instead. Britvic says that 43% of soft drink launches last year were of premium lines but in fact premium drinks still only account for just 7% of sales.

One of the newest premium brands to hit the shelves is Bundaberg Brewed Drinks, available in the UK via Barr Soft Drinks.

Bundaberg Brewed Drinks is an ’iconic’ Australian family-owned business based in Queensland, established 50 years ago and focused on craft-brewed premium non-alcoholic beverages. The Bundaberg range uses traditional brewing methods and the best quality ingredients to deliver "great tasting" adult beverages.

The UK range comprises six flavours: Ginger Beer, Root Beer, Blood Orange, Lemon/Lime & Bitters, Peach and Pink Grapefruit.

"We are very excited to have Bundaberg Brewed Drinks on board as a partner," says Jonathan Kemp, commercial director at Barr Soft Drinks. "Their range of drinks is bang on trend as premium adult drinks are in significant growth and within this, craft is primed to take off, just as it has done in other drinks categories.

"Everything about Bundaberg is unique, from their premium brews to the glass ’stubby’ bottle with the iconic rip cap.

"It is a fabulous addition to our portfolio and for any retailer looking to target adults, it will make an exciting addition to their soft drinks range."

Finally, while the soft drinks category still continues to perform well, not least of all in forecourts, Britvic believes there’s still a massive sales opportunity with a potential additional £2.6bn of sales available in the next five years. See page box above for more details.