It would be difficult to find a more appropriate symbol of the battle for food retailing’s future than Soylent, the “meal replacement drink” doing phenomenal sales online and now charging into retail stores.
Developed by a Bay Area software engineer experimenting with nutrition, the drink (and associated powder mix) attracted the attention of the tech community—and eventually, venture investors—who latched onto the revolutionary notion that Soylent wasn’t just another trendy functional food, but a lifestyle in and of itself. For a generation of consumers with neither the time nor the inclination to cook, and with many lacking the means to afford making multiple trips to restaurants, the meal-in-a-bottle provided an ideal solution. Founder Rob Rhinehart boasted of owning neither dishes nor a refrigerator, having turned his kitchen into a library, and living off of nothing but Soylent for 30 days.
Soylent also struck a chord with a name out of a classic science fiction novel, and its nifty packaging likens to a modern take on the old-time medicine bottle. Its marketing resembles that of software as much as food: Its products are indexed as they’re updated (Soylent powder, for example, is currently version 1.8) and come with “release notes” regarding formulation changes as though they were software bug fixes. It was lauded for innovative promotions including a campaign executed completely on the darknet utilizing an AI spokesbot named Trish.
All this has helped Soylent become one of Amazon’s highest-selling grocery products and have a thriving online subscription model.
The company today acknowledges its users needn’t be so hardcore. It positions its products not as replacements for any or all food, but as a smart way to address “food voids,” or times when a body needs fuel but hasn’t the time to prepare or purchase a meal, replacing less healthy choices such as fast food, salty snacks or skipping a meal entirely. After all, where Soylent wants to go, its needs to co-exist with other foods.
A year ago, Rhinehart turned over the chief executive chair of parent company Rosa Foods to Brian Crowley, a veteran of CPG giants such as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst Brewing, Mars and ConAgra as well as the upstart probiotic brand KeVita, which was later sold to PepsiCo. Among Crowley’s marching orders was getting Soylent into additional channels of trade. That effort started with a rollout to 7-Eleven stores beginning last summer, as well as a deal with the New York-area beverage distributor Big Geyser, and distribution deals with Albertsons and HEB stores in Texas.
Last week, Soylent’s Cacao, Vanilla Latte and Coffiest varieties began arriving on the shelves of Walmart stores—as well as Jet.com and Walmart.com—indicating the company is ready to push Soylent to the masses.
“By working with Walmart, Soylent has the unique opportunity to build presence offline with a leading force in the grocery sector. We are committed to making our offline experience as robust as our thriving online business and Walmart marks a significant step in bringing our product to new consumers across the country,” Melody Conner, VP of sales for Soylent, said in a release.
For Walmart, the arrival is also something of a score in capturing one of the top-selling products of its virtual rival. Walmart stores will sell individual bottles, while its online channels will sell 12-bottle cases (for the same price as Amazon, according to my checks).
The Walmart site on which they arrived, in the meantime, is getting its own refueling, with a new look company officials say will help the merchant and the brands available on it to better communicate with shoppers.
According to a blog post by Walmart E-Commerce CEO Marc Lore, the new site will integrate more color, photography, personalization and customization, acknowledging that a user shopping for groceries and another shopping for a couch would tend to have different shopping missions requiring different website experiences.
“The customer is at the core of everything we do, so it won’t surprise you to hear that our customers helped us make these changes—but they weren’t the only ones. We also considered feedback from current and prospective brands as we look to continue building our assortment,” Lore said. “With these changes, brands will have opportunities to better tell their stories on Walmart.com, including new approaches to advertising within seamlessly integrated ads.”