Kombucha is Growing, But Retailers Are Ready to Axe Brands

/ / Businesss, News

The kombucha industry is exploding – sales were up 21 percent to $728.8 million last year. Kombucha and non-alcoholic fermented beverages are now the third largest beverage category, representing 10 percent of total refreshment beverage sales.

Distribution is high at conventional, natural and convenience stores. But velocities (sales) are declining.

“A word of caution – there’s going to be a reckoning,” said Bobbi Leahy, director of sales at SPINS, a natural products market research group. “All these retailers are taking all these lovely kombuchas … they will be evaluating you, probably far soon than you think is warranted. There will be some slashing going on.”

Leahy spoke at KombuchaKon, the Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) annual trade conference in Long Beach. The year’s KombuchaKon was the industry’s largest since the first conference six years ago, with 424 attendees from 17 countries.

“I applaud you all on the growth. I think that’s wonderful,” Leahy said. But “I would be ready with some materials to go in and defend your spaces.”

In her presentation on the kombucha market analysis and future trends, Leahy emphasized that refrigerated beverage shelves are expensive retail space. She shared advice with kombucha brands on how to survive the current high distribution wave. The SPINS analysis is based off 52 weeks of sales ending in February 2019. Her tips:

  • Prepare with Sales Materials. If kombucha sales can’t keep up with distribution, retailers will have to answer to their higher-ups. Why is there so much kombucha on the shelf that isn’t selling? Leahy warned brands to be the ones educating retailers, advising brands to share data points and score cards. She added: “I encourage you to go and get ahead of that, be the one talking that message. You tell them what the right set is, you tell them what they should do, you know this industry. If they’re overstocked on something, then let them know. They’re looking to you to be the experts.”
  • Conventional supermarkets reign. The bulk of kombucha and fermented beverage sales are coming from conventional supermarkets. “If you succeed in the conventional channel, you’ll have success overall because they represent 70 percent of sales,” Leahy said.
  • Don’t ignore convenience stores. Convenience store (like 7-11 and gas stations) sales of kombucha and fermented beverage sales are growing 55 percent. “You have to make it a task to go after convenience,” Leahy noted. “You probably wouldn’t have said ‘That’s my low-hanging fruit, I’m going to go in there.’ But they’re certainly getting the message now … It’s certainly worth having a plan to go after convenience.”
  • Craft different sales messages for each channel. Don’t go in to retailers with the same message. Between conventional, convenience, natural and specialty stores, each channel will care about different things.
  • Know region’s sales trends. The west coast – especially California – has high kombucha sales. The south central, mid-south and Great Lakes regions are under-indexing in kombucha sales. Leahy pointed out that the west is a ready audience and a great spot to experiment with new flavors. The south and Great Lakes regions, though, need an education focus. Demos are a great idea in the area.
  • Highlight brand’s best attributes. Boast about characteristics beyond the label. Features like: clean label, sustainability, brand mission, wellness goals, social impact and great ingredient sources.
  • Top selling flavors are solid. Ginger and berry are the two top flavors across all channels. The “fruit – other” is also a top selling flavor and growing (135 percent), which is defined as unique fruit flavors like watermelon, guava and melon. The past year, there has been the strongest growth in flavors: apple (172 percent), grapefruit (155 percent), pomegranate (104 percent) and orange (98 percent).
  • Tread lightly with unique flavors. Leahy pointed out, if a unique flavor only appeals to a small audience, a conventional retailer will notice only a small number of customers are buying it. “That small and that low is going to be kind of a perfect storm,” she said. “You really want to be careful.”
  • Smaller size bottles sell best. The 14- to 17-ounce size kombucha make up the majority of sales.
  • Start sales promotions. Coupons, mailers and sales are great options to get products off shelves.
  • Use your social network. Let people know which stores you’re at.
  • Maintain a good store locator. Brand’s websites should feature a good store locator detailing which stores carry which flavors of kombucha.
  • Top kombucha brands dominate the market. GT Kombucha, Kevita, Health Ade, Humm Kombucha and Brew Dr. account for 88 percent of kombucha sales at conventional retailers and 89 percent of kombucha sales at convenience stores. GT Kombucha, Kevita, Health Ade and Brew Dr. account for 77 percent of kombucha sales at natural stores and 82 percent of kombucha sales at specialty gourmet stores. Those same top brands likely will not change, Leahy noted.
  • Know beverage trends. “The trends you are seeing in kombucha are special and unique,” Leahy said. “…as you’re sitting across a buyer or a category manager or retailer, you want to be well-versed in what other beverages are on the shelf and which ones they’re probably going to protect.”
    • Natural beverages are contributing more to the growth of the refreshment beverage category than non-natural. The conventional, shelf-stable beverages (like Coke and Pepsi products) account for 63 percent of the refreshment beverage industry, but only 53 percent of growth. Diet soda is especially losing favor among consumers. Specialty and wellness beverages (like energy drinks and Gatorade) make up 29 percent of sales and 35 percent of growth, especially driven by energy drinks. Natural drinks (like kombucha and La Croix) make up 8 percent of sales, but natural is driving 13 percent of growth.
    • Of the natural beverage subcategories, shelf-stable performance beverages (like Body Armor) are experiencing the biggest growth at 87 percent. Declining categories include shelf-stable coconut water (-12 percent) and juices (-3 percent).
  • Emphasize growth of natural products industry. Natural products are no longer a niche market. The natural products industry is estimated to reach $140 billion in sales in 2019. In 2003, natural products were a $52 billion industry.

When SPINS began tracking kombucha sales years ago, Leahy noted kombucha was “barely a blip on the map.” Current Kombucha sales numbers are also likely higher than noted – major retailers Costco and Whole Foods do not share sales data with SPINS.

“In a way, it’s a good problem to have – you can’t sell if you’re not on the shelf,” Leahy said. “ou’re on the shelf – now it’s time to sell.”