RFID Redefines Convenience for Dispensed Beverages

Stopping in for a drink can be as fast as fill, tap and go

By 
Aimee Harvey, Managing Editor, Technomic

Will RFID mugs revolutionize refueling in c-stores?

Convenience stores’ first foray into automated payment can be found in an unlikely place: a cup.

In a crowded market that has retailers vying for every foodservice dollar, evolving the definition of “convenience” with changing technology is critical. How can a retailer make each visit even faster and more efficient for its guests?

The next level of convenience transforms the fountain or coffee cup itself into the technology by leveraging radio frequency identification (RFID). The aim: to speed up the payment process so that stopping in for a drink can be as fast as fill, tap and go.

RFID technology involves the use of a chip, or tag, that stores information about a particular item. Operators are putting it to the test inside refillable cups to control self-serve, prepaid refill programs.

An RFID chip is programmed with the store’s refill offer, then embedded into special drinkware. A scanner on the dispensed-beverage equipment “reads” the tag on the cup, identifying its dollar value and refilling the mug or cup accordingly.

“The biggest draw for consumers is how RFID delivers on the fastest possible speed of service for dispensed beverage with how it gives guests the ability to bypass the register,” says Greg Edelson, president of ValidFill, part of Warren, Pa.-based Whirley-DrinkWorks.

The company provides foodservice operations with RFID-equipped drinkware for beverage refill programs.

RFID-enabled drinkware is all about “controlled-pour dispensing,” Edelson says. “Controlled pour enables operators to place dispensers in places they [have] never considered and introduce offers they [have] never considered before, like a monthly coffee pass in a c-store.”

RFID-equipped dispensed beverage programs also provide a treasure trove of data, including beverage choices, volumes, cup sizes and purchase times. The data can be mined to “understand the exact profitability of all offers,” Edelson says.

Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz has become a pioneer of the fill-tap-go beverage occasion as part of its test of RapidPay kiosks in select stores in Altoona, Duncansville, Hollidaysburg, North Warren and State College, Pa.

Sheetz customers can visit the RapidPay kiosk and purchase a special RFID-encoded mug. The RFID RapidPay cup is activated at purchase and comes preloaded with three free refills. The customer can then load a prepaid dollar amount.

Guests fill up with their desired drink at the fountain, rest the cup on the kiosk platform and follow the on-screen instructions. Once a light turns green, the transaction is finished. Sheetz describes the RapidPay experience as “stop in, fill, scan, touch and go on your way.”

The strategy appears to be winning with Sheetz guests. “The customer reaction has been great thus far,” says Ryan Riggs, director of food and beverage operations for Sheetz.

Although the chain has self-checkouts in a few of its stores, the vast majority of its locations offer only the option of paying at the counter with a salesperson, he says.

“The concept of a faster type of transaction, especially for some of our customers who are more time-starved to begin with, has resonated with the customers … who really need the 30-second beverage experience that this allows Sheetz to provide,” Riggs says.

RFID can not only draw or increase traffic from time-conscious and tech-savvy customers, but it also can enhance the flow of the visit and strengthen the overall positive perception.

“The most innovative operators are rethinking guest flow and how controlled self-serve solutions can improve customer satisfaction and loyalty,” says Edelson, who describes an RFID-enabled mug as “a gift card on steroids.”

With RFID technology, retailers can also build in value-added offers for the fountain and strategize more creatively around dispensed programs. For example, they can introduce a monthly unlimited refill promotion or create a platform that integrates new innovations such as a Bluetooth-enabled “smart mug” that allows retailers to engage consumers through their loyalty app, Edelson says.

Ultimately, it all comes down to speed.

“It certainly helps to be able to convince your consumers that you aren’t going to slow them down in the morning. We’ve seen our coffee sales reflect this,” Riggs says.

RFID is also proving to be a surprise win for other customers. “One of the less obvious positive outcomes to this program is that it allows for a faster average transaction for the rest of our customers because all of our RapidPay customers have been taken out of our main transaction queue,” Riggs says. “It’s really a win-win for us.”

Other upsides for operators include reduced labor costs and a nod to sustainability. That was the incentive for Ohio State University, a 65,000-student campus in Columbus, Ohio, to introduce ValidFill cups to 15,000 students in fall 2016. The university wanted to cut down on waste from conventional wax-coated soft-drink cups, and dial down on labor costs.

The ValidFill cups come encoded with 10 drink refills and are personalized with each student’s name. Users can fill and go, skipping the cashier line. Other segments with fountain programs, such as the University of San Diego, Universal Studios, Walt Disney World Resorts and numerous cruise ship lines, are also implementing RFID refill technologies to decrease payment times.

With 61% of consumers saying they’d be likely to use touch-and-pay kiosks in a c-store, Chicago-based Technomic says, the entire store is open for automation. And beyond emphasizing speed and convenience for the customer, RFID could revolutionize refill platforms and fountain and coffee promotions for operators—all in a seemingly simple cup.


Updating an Icon: Sodapalooza

“The hurdle of predicting future technology is always top of mind for us,” says Robby Posener, vice president of marketing, merchandising, design, construction, reporting and insights for Atlanta-based RaceTrac.

RaceTrac’s annual Sodapalooza refill promotion is an icon in the industry, driving traffic and building

rabid consumer buzz. Through the program, it offers “FreeFills” from May through July, when customers can purchase a special cup for one price and fill it up all summer.

Along with a consistent social-media presence, RaceTrac has evolved the promotion to include its own tech: Customers who download and use the RaceTrac Rewards mobile app receive an additional discount on the cup.