Sustainability is very important to university students, but these young consumers are often on a budget. According to the Chicago-based research firm Mintel, millennial purchasing habits are driven by strong eco-friendly ideals, but also by whether a manufacturer’s sustainable efforts result in lower cost items. Mintel reports that while 18 percent of consumers across all age groups are willing to pay a premium for green products, almost 60 percent of U.S. consumers practice green behaviors to save money, and this sentiment is higher among consumers aged 35 and under.
University foodservice professionals know that in addition to offering millennial consumers the foods and beverages that they want, the facilities also need to offer convenience, value, and products that are earth friendly. So while these students are engaged in both saving the planet and saving money, the food and drink establishments can drive traffic and build sales.
Warren, Pa.-based Whirley-DrinkWorks! uses technology from its wholly owned subsidiary, Bradenton, Fla.-based ValidFill, a company that Whirley-DrinkWorks! launched in 2009. The two companies worked together to develop a university beverage service program that combines RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, Coca-Cola’s Freestyle beverage machines, and sustainable refillable bottles. Students buy the refillable bottle and pay upfront for unlimited refills for the semester. They can then bring the clear plastic, school logo emblazoned bottle to be refilled at the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines throughout campus.
“We have been able to marry Whirley-DrinkWorks! refillable drink vessels with the profit boost that comes from prepaid beverage packages on campuses to make sustainability a very profitable initiative for the operator and an easy decision for the consumer,” says Greg Edelson, president of ValidFill, a Whirley-DrinkWorks! sister company.
The bottle contains an embedded RFID tag that is loaded with information about cup size, offer details, location sold, and other data. When a student chooses a beverage, the RFID tag communicates to the machine and fills the cup according to how the RFID tag is programmed. The dispenser will not pour an ounce of product unless it recognizes a valid RFID tag. Given that the fills are prepaid, the student does not have to wait in a register line which increases guest satisfaction and gives the food service operator the opportunity to increase the number of meaningful transactions per hour during peak periods.
The University of Vermont, located in Burlington, Vt., was one of the campuses that launched the Whirley-DrinkWorks! with ValidFill program last year. The university has 13,000 graduate and undergraduate students, and in the fall of 2015, 1,775 students bought the refillable bottles. Each paid $31.99 for semester-long unlimited refills with the Whirley-DrinkWorks! cups.
The upfront payment generated revenue for the school early in the semester, and that wasn’t the only financial benefit. “On the cost side, we won’t be using as many disposables with this program,” says Jim Rodgers, director of retail and catering operations for UVM Dining. “The key is to sell the reusables. The value is there for the student and the user, but it’s also there for the university. The savings in consumable spend is significant; another great benefit is the fact that when students go to a venue to redeem their drinks, there is a high probability that they will make the decision to dine there or purchase an additional item.
Students said they loved the environmental benefits of the program, as well as the speed of service. Also there was a large selection of beverages, as the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine offers 100-plus drink options. Among the most popular beverages was water, and its many vitamin enhanced and other variations. That is consistent with more research, indicating that millennials are also interested in improving their health. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey, 70 percent of millennials said they cut calories by drinking water, or low- and no-calorie beverages. Also according to the IFIC, millennials are not cutting back on snacking or eating small meals, which could mean more traffic at college foodservice facilities.
Repeat customers are indeed an important part of any business, says Shariff Nickens, retail director for Sodexo at the State University of New York at New Paltz campus. The Whirley with ValidFill program created repeat customers because it brought students back into the university’s various retail venues for more drinks, and presumably, for snacks and other foods. “It gives you the opportunity for impulse sales, for expanded check average, and it continues to help you grow your business.”
At SUNY New Paltz the unlimited self-serve refills cost $24.99, and the bottles cost $9.99. The campus has eight dispensers in five separate retail locations. The program was so popular, Nickens says, that the school paid off the capital costs in six days.
“One of the best things about this program is that you can see every repeat visit through the reporting data provided to us by Whirley,” he says. “For us, seeing that data means you can see the impact of sustainability with repeat visits as well as redemption.”
Whirley-DrinkWorks! is one of the largest refill drink vessel manufacturers in the world, and its products are available in convenience stores, zoos, amusement parks, cruises and restaurants. The company has several sustainability initiatives, including recycling, and since 2004 it has reground and reused more than five million pounds of plastic and created a product line made of 85 percent recycled plastic.