Dawn Barnett knows the challenge of creating cold-vault plan-o-grams and making beverages fit in like puzzle pieces—but she still loves it. The 14-year veteran of Circle K has been the packaged beverage category manager for the past six years. She manages the chain’s Midwest unit, based in Columbus, Ind., which covers 430 stores.

What’s new and exciting in packaged beverages?
An AriZona Iced Tea co-branding agreement has been executed. This is our first co-branding adventure with a powerful brand and should prove to be very good for my customers and my tea business. The cans will have a Circle K logo on the top and still be branded Arizona and be the same great taste customers enjoy today. We will sell the top eight flavors to begin our partnership with them.

What do you love about your category?
I love that the category is a traffic driver as well as a profit generator. I also enjoy the challenge of creating the cooler plan-o-grams each year like a giant puzzle, interlocking all the pieces of new items, growing categories, new subcategories and achieving a successful combination to both grow sales and offer our customers first-to-market innovative drinks.

What is the biggest frustration?
I can’t control the weather. My category is very weather-driven, especially here in the Midwest. Weather is something you can’t control or plan for.

How did the pandemic change your category?
I see customers buying more less often. They are also willing to spend more in our stores for the convenience. … I think these trends will continue as long as customers still feel trips in public places are a risk.

What products performed well in the past year?
The energy category and CSD categories, including take-home packages, were both big performers last year. … Energy has been on an upward trend year after year, and those customers are loyal to the category. With great promotions and multi-can purchase options, along with lots of innovation offerings, energy has shown year-over-year growth, even during the pandemic. CSD has continued to grow despite predictions of declining trends in my stores. I see consumers staying with trusted brands and flavors as well as purchasing their favorite CSD as a treat.

Any changes to how you’re displaying products in your stores?
In response to customers’ buying habit changing due to COVID-19, my stores displayed bulk and pop beverages, beer, take-home snacks and personal protective equipment (PPE) items in stores close to checkouts.

What are your goals for 2021?
Grow units per store per day over prior year. Grow market share again. Own thirst!

What are the biggest challenges?
Space is always a challenge. Product shortages have been a really big challenge across all vendors in our entire stores due to COVID-19 and all of the domino effects it has created. Shortages of employees, customers, delivery drivers and fuel trips are impacting overall business.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
Continuing to support our customers and communities every day [and] putting the pandemic behind us.

Click here to visit CSP's complete 2021 Category Management Handbook.