Intoxicated by Energy, Relaxation at NACS; Photo Gallery

and Jeffrey Klineman

Despite a plethora of products claiming relaxation or other sleep benefits, it seemed that malternatives took center stage at last week’s National Association of Convenience Stores convention. In fact, it can be argued that this category was even looking to make a comeback at the event. With a large, elaborate booth from Joose – plus plenty of models on hand to offer up candy-colored samples containing 12 percent ABV– and an ad-covered edifice from FOUR Loko, these malternatives were at NACS to be both seen and heard.

However, not all category-specific products on offer showcased their wares in such a loud fashion. At the Crunk Energy Drinks booth, a new malternative in a 24 oz. can was on display. And over at the centrally-located Miller Coors booth, 24 oz. cans of Sparks (sans caffeine these days) appeared in the company’s cooler cases above 6- and 24-pack brews including Molson, Miller Lite and Peroni.

Of course the high energy beverage offerings at NACS didn’t stop with items spiked with something a little extra. Despite all the energy shot noise at booths up and down the exhibition halls, a new offering from Hansen’s Beverages aimed to let its little, 2 oz. voice be heard. WORX, the company’s new shot aims to “go after the 5-Hour Energy consumer” and it will be “one of the [company’s] most important launches” when it hits the market, a Monster representative explained. With no calories and what was said to be an improved flavor profile, the company is “going out with all guns firing” to get WORX on the market and in consumers’ hands, and will employ TV media campaigns in order to do so.

Meanwhile, over at the 5-Hour booth, the idea that any product might impact its sales seemed like a faraway possibility to CEO Manoj Bhargava. He said a recent shift in ad strategy from a comparison to energy drinks like Monster (one that was abandoned in no small part due to legal pressure from that company) to one that offered up 5-Hour as the antidote to that “2:30 Feeling” had only served to ramp up sales even further.

“I don’t think it’s a category,” Jatar said of energy shots. “I think it’s just us, and it’s other, minor stuff.”

In other categories that have long been dominated by one brand, like Citrus CSDs, it appeared that challenges were surfacing. One example was on display at the Dr Pepper/Snapple booth, where the company was preparing to bring Appalachian-area legacy brand Sundrop to the mass market. Featuring slightly more caffeine than category-killer Mountain Dew, Sundrop is preparing a major rollout with MTV as a media partner.

Meanwhile, at the Coca-Cola Co. booth, several tweaks to existing lines were apparent but no major overhauls were on the way. In a move to expand the convenience store consumer demographic beyond the usual blue-collar male – a demographic that has been whacked especially hard by the declining economy, particularly when it comes to construction jobs – the company has expanded its vitaminwater offerings to include calcium-enhanced “stur-d,” which focuses on bone health, as well as Truvia-sweetened “rhythm” in its vitaminwater zero line. Additionally, the company is slashing SKUs on its Fuze line, while creating a new 16.9 oz. plastic bottle and getting pricing under control.

New SKUs are on tap for Powerade, however, most interestingly a Powerade Milk brand that attempts to combine hydration with protein for better recovery.

While it might not be brand new, Whoopass from Jones Soda Company was another non-alcoholic energy drink receiving special attention at NACS. The company re-launched the “improved” and reformulated beverage at its prominently located booth decorated to match the new can design and colors. Its gritty, urban feel was an interesting contrast to the pure white booth of Lotus energy drink, located across the exhibit hall. This brand was designed to go after the “Apple/Entourage consumer,“ according to cofounder Thomas Umboh. With a large bottle of UV Coconut-flavored vodka on display at the booth and the strong hint that it went well with the energy drink, it seemed that the malternative market – or at least its promise – may not be far from this company’s mind.

At the other end of the spectrum, Just Chill, iChill, RelaxZen and Dream Water offered relaxing alternatives – the latter three in shot formats. However, the new Versus shot stood out from the crowd as a self-described “body recovery shot.” Operating on the premise that a bad taste means good results, Versus was swallowed by many an attendee with a grimace and exclamation of its bitterness. Fortunately for the company, it can be mixed with more pleasant items  – and we’re assuming they don’t mean alcohol.

Even though malternatives might have been on many a NACS-attendee’s mind, there was sufficient room for good, old-fashioned noncarbonated soft drinks. Among those of note was the new zero-calorie offering from Adina Holistics. In three flavors – a Jolly Rancher-like melon, black cherry and a tangerine, which is still under development – Adina Zero will complement the Holistics line. As of late, the company has ramped up its sales force as and increased distribution.  Additionally, Peace Tea’s booth stood out from the crowd with its swinging-Sixties themed booth and hippie vibe, punctuated by a VW Bus parked and full of product. According to a company representative, Peace Tea hopes to become a “healthier alternative” to Arizona and entice calorie-conscious consumers away. “Nobody deserves to have the dominant market share,” he explained. “That’s our philosophy.” With six SKUS and flavors like diet green tea and unsweetened tea, it might be prudent to “definitely expect another” flavor in the future as Peace Tea takes on the tea market.

Also on the tea front, Sweet Leaf’s push into convenience stores was reflected in the company’s bifurcated strategy – offering up its namesake product in cans while its other partner, the newly-acquired Tradewinds, was being shown to C-stores in bottles at a higher price point.

While AriZona’s 99-cent offerings are tough to beat for consumers, according to one Sweet Leaf sales rep, the idea of a can of Sweet Leaf appealing to women customers could also have appeal for retailers who may be tired of being wedded to the category leader’s on-can pre-price.

Ball Corporation is the sponsor of BevNET's NACS 2010 coverage. To learn more about Ball, click here.

For a gallery of photos from NACS, click here.