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Dry January? Booze-free Feb? C-stores have it covered

As products evolve and consumer demand grows, c-stores are stocking up on no- and low-alcohol beverages.
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Think mocktails, craft beer, seltzers and wine–flavourful sips without the booze. The no alcohol-beverage category is reaching new heights with impressive growth of more than 500% since 2015, according to Nielsen data. U.S. figures peg annual growth at 7.1%. With numbers like that, convenience stores have taken notice and are stocking up.

Though the no-alcohol beverage category isn’t new, it is having its moment now. And, with Dry January in full swing and the Canadian Cancer Society's Dry Feb Challenge  on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to stock up.

James Rolph, director, Canada convenience retail, Parkland, says several factors could be linked to the growing demand, including an increased focus on health, both mental and physical, among consumers.

“While non-alcoholic beverages have been around for ages and historically purchased by designated drivers or pregnant consumers, we’re now seeing consumers be more critical about what they put into their bodies,” he explains. “For those who are more health-conscious but enjoy the taste of certain beverages, these products are generally low in sugar and calories, and of course, little-to-no alcohol content.”

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Non-Alc canned drinks on display with sandwichs at Parkland
Non-alcoholic beverages are kept cold and strategically positioned with grab-and-go items at On the Run.
Non-Alc canned drinks on display with sandwichs at Parkland
Non-alcoholic beverages are kept cold and strategically positioned with grab-and-go items at On the Run.

Beverages with no/low alcohol are not a category traditionally sold in Parkland stores (including On the Run and The Corner Store), but it’s one its consumers are noticing more, thanks to significant investment in innovative products from well-known names and new entrants. “The quality of what’s being produced has also made leaps over the past few years, which makes it an even more enticing offer for our customers,” says Rolph.

To test the waters in non-alcoholic beverage sales, Parkland took a test-and-learn approach to gauge interest. “As with most new categories, it was critical we launched with effectively-placed floor displayers with clear messaging and attractive price points,” he explains. “Our strategic approach encouraged trial and subsequently led to repeat purchases.”

In its stores, Parkland has noticed that many customers are very surprised at how the taste profile is nearly identical to a traditional alcoholic beverage once they sample one.

“Consumers love choice and innovation, both of which the convenience industry and our stores offer, across the board,” says Rolph.

That explains why Parkland is optimistic about the category, which “continues to evolve, and quickly.” Rolph admits options were previously very limited and rarely offered in convenience, but feels there is a high ceiling for non-alcoholic beverage sales.

David Thompson, president & co-founder, Clearsips, sees non-alcoholic choices as a good fit for c-stores as consumers look beyond pop, juice and water. The company, which started in May 2022, has become a leading distributor, importer and retailer specializing in non-alcoholic beverages. “C-stores are interested in new trends and revenue streams and they look to meet the evolving needs of their customers,” says Thompson.

He suggests that c-stores put non-alcoholic beverages together in a clearly labelled display area. “Non-alcoholic white wines, beers and ready-to-drink cocktails are best served cold, so having these items refrigerated could make them more appealing to c-store consumers as a grab-and-go option.”

He goes on to note that the biggest consideration for non-alcoholic beverages in c-stores is the format. “We recommend looking at single-serve, ready-to-drink non-alcoholic beers, premixed cocktails and wines. At Clearsips, we work with grocers, restaurants and retailers to wholesale a wide range of high-quality, alcohol-free products. Together we find the right NA beverages for their set-up and customers.”

Peter Neal, president, Neal Brothers, says his company launched a non-alcoholic beer last year after seeing its popularity grow rapidly in Europe. “We felt confident the same trend would continue in North America,” he explains. “We also had access to a partner who could produce a much better product than what was currently in the market. Our beer is brewed with alcohol in the same way a 5% beer would be brewed. The alcohol molecules are then removed in a patented process leaving a richer and truer full beer flavour.”

He points out that non-alcoholic beer consumption in Canada is currently less than 3% of the total beer market. Consumption rates in Europe are four to five times that amount. “With Health Canada recently labelling alcohol as a Class A carcinogen, I think this trend will rise sharply in the coming years,” Neal notes.

Though Neal Bros. Lagers are not available in convenience stores, he recognizes the suitability of products like them in c-stores “where consumers can get in and out quickly as opposed to walking a big store and digging around for a specific item.”

To maximize sales, no-alcohol beverages should be located close to other similarly consumed items—snacks is a logical move—and be offered in a standalone display, like a rotating shelving unit or cabinet with higher-end and unique beer-related snacks.

As Parkland’s Rolph says, “We’re excited to see where the no-alcohol beverage category goes.”

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