The convenience and nutritional value of aseptic packaged drinks keep the sales figures strong as retailers prepare to push the category for summer.
A big favorite for children's lunch boxes during the school season, aseptic packaged drinks experience a leveling off of sales in some areas during the summer, a phenomenon that some retailers try to counter with special displays and price breaks.
"We try to do an advertising special or a special display of aseptic drinks every month," said David Puhan, category manager for Brown & Cole, which is based in Bellingham, Wash., and has 35 stores in Wash., Oregon and Montana. "We might have an endcap of cookies and put aseptic drinks with it.
"The category is steadily increasing for us, but it is mostly a kids market, both during school and in the summer. We have special prices and coupons," he added. "People like it for the value and convenience -- it is an inexpensive, relatively painless way to give kids a fruit beverage that has no sugar and no carbonation."
Aseptic package drinks, commonly called drink boxes, were first introduced in the United States in the early 1980s, although the technique was available and popular with shoppers in Europe long before then. The packaging, which uses a layered paper, plastic and aluminum box that locks out light and air and seals in nutrients and flavor, can remain on the shelf, unrefrigerated, for up to a year, according to the Aseptic Packaging Council. The council is a trade organization founded in 1989 to represent the two major U.S. manufacturers of aseptic cartons, Tetra Pak Inc. of Chicago and SIG Combibloc Inc. of Columbus, Ohio.
Aseptic packaging remains more popular in Europe than in the United States, particularly for milk, which Americans feel is not fresh unless it is purchased cold. The council's biggest job in recent years has been to try to educate the public to the fact that aseptic packaged drinks are more healthful than products that are cooked for long periods of time to preserve or pasteurize them, and that aseptic boxes are an environmentally friendly type of minimal packaging that can be recycled.
In fact, much more than just fruit drinks are available in aseptic packages. Milk, cider, nectars, vegetable juices, tea, soy products, wine, sports drinks and more diverse products such as tomato sauce, whipping cream, alcoholic beverages, hot chocolate concentrate and even pancake syrup and scrambled egg mix are packaged in aseptic boxes.
"Sales in this area are increasing," said Steven Mitchell, vice president of marketing for Virginia Acme Market. "All drinks are up and that section has blossomed for us. In some stores sales are up as much as 13%. This is a hot thing with kids right now and manufacturers are doing a lot of advertising."
To take advantage of that national advertising, Virginia Acme, which is based in Tazewell, Va., and has 30 stores in five mid-Atlantic states, does special displays on the end of and in the juice aisle at the beginning of summer, the beginning of school and in January for back-to-school after the holidays, Mitchell said.
"Aseptic drinks are replacing powdered drinks because of the convenience and because they are easier to store in the refrigerator," he added. "The fruit juice is more nutritious than other drinks, which is a concern for parents, and they don't spill."
Although Virginia Acme and some other stores are seeing sales increases, the category as a whole has remained stable recently. Total sales for aseptic drinks in large supermarkets, including baby juice, cider, fruit and vegetable juices and flavored drinks, was $487.3 million for the 52-week period ending March 18, a 0.3% decline from the previous 52 weeks, according to ACNielsen, national researchers and consultants based in Schaumburg, Ill.
Numbers compiled by the Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc., which include sales in supermarkets and food stores of all sizes, are slightly more encouraging, with an increase of 5.8% from $562.8 million in 1997 to $595.7 million in 1998.
The newest products helping to push the category are the larger aseptic boxes, the new nine- and 10-pack packages, and V-8's new Splash, said Allan Young, category buyer for Big Y Foods in Springfield, Mass.
"Although we don't treat this as a seasonal item, they do sell better during the school year," Young said. "We keep them in the regular juice aisle and run specials off the shelf. We display them with cookies and crackers."
Joel Childress, buyer for Mitchell Grocery Corp. in Albertville, Ala., agreed. Mitchell has 160 Foodland, Lewis Jones, Shop-Rite and Food Giant stores in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi.
"We keep all of the juices together and just do regular advertising. For back-to-school, we will do a theme advertisement and we will do a special display if the manufacturers have a good price break, which we pass along to the customer," he said.
The introduction of drink pouches by Hi-C and Capri Sun have hurt the sale of aseptic packaged drinks somewhat, said Doug Murphy, director of grocery merchandising for Martin's Super Markets, based in South Bend, Ind., but the boxed drinks still sell well all year.
"We do three-for-the-price-of-two, or four-for-the-price-of-three. These drinks sell well all year, but we do cross-merchandising in aisle displays or on a front wall display with anything that goes into a lunch box," he said. "We promote them at least once a month all year."
The Minute Maid Company, which has had a hit with the new pouch drinks, also introduced Hi-C drink boxes fortified with calcium in January because parents are concerned that children get enough vitamin C and calcium, said Audrey Rummele, Minute Maid senior public relations specialist.
The company has paired with Mamamedia.com, an interactive Web site for children, to promote the Web site and Hi-C drinks. The line also is getting a new look with crisper, more exciting and colorful graphics geared to children, she said.
Private label aseptic packaged drinks have had a hard time breaking into the market for the category, which remains a name brand market, according to the Private Label Manufacturers Association based in New York City.
Although private-label aseptic packaged drinks increased in sales by 13.5% from $9.5 million in 1997 to $10.8 million in 1998, private label only maintains a 3.5% share of the aseptic drink market.
New products in aseptic packaging are helping to drive the sales. New this summer, Kellogg's will have a combination cereal and aseptic packaged milk.
Vitasoy's new Center Store product, Creamy Unsweetened 100% Organic Natural Soy Drink, is in an aseptic pack, and is "a wonderful addition to the line," said Denise Garbinski, executive marketing managers at Vitasoy, San Francisco, Calif., because it has three very strong consumer groups to draw from. One is the natural foods consumer who, more and more, is looking for products without artificial sweeteners. A second are those with dietary restrictions who are looking for a milk substitute without sugar or sweeteners.
"And a third category are the growing number of consumers who want to get soy in their diet, but may not be ready to drink it." This product can be used, instead, in cooking, Garbinski said. The product is made even more attractive because "we have fortified it. Soy milk has naturally occurring calcium and zinc, but the riboflavin and vitamins A, D and B12 are added. It's the first unsweetened soy milk on the market that is fortified."
Vitasoy will be supporting the Creamy Unsweetened product with a full recipe brochure, advertising in Cooking Light magazine, and demos in stores as well. "We are opening it up to [the] mainstream, and major mainstream accounts seem to be very interested in the product, which will ship June 1," Garbinski said.
Martin Pamensky, national sales manager for Ceres, aseptic drink manufacturers headquartered in South Africa and imported to the United States, said, "Any juice in aseptic boxes is high quality. Because of the reluctance of some people to accept aseptic packaging, we introduced our product in the United State as kosher and then [we will] expand from there."
More types of juices and flavors are popular in Europe, compared to the United States, where traditional berry flavors sell best. But Ceres in the past four months has introduced a blend of tomato, carrot and celery; Dew of the Dawn, which is cantaloupe, papaya, passion fruit and orange; a white grape juice, and litche, which is a unique flavored fruit that looks like a small grape. Ceres is marketed in natural food stores and in many of the larger supermarket chains.
But Pamensky disagrees with the practice of putting the drinks in the fruit juice aisle, where he says they get lost.
"We prefer it in the kosher, natural foods or produce aisle," he said. "Ceres has a recipe book for cooking or for combining the drink with bananas or peaches for a smoothie."