Last updated: February 16. 2013 3:25PM - 122 Views

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ATLANTA – Coca-Cola's Freestyle fountain dispenser, which the company launched three years ago, is one of its biggest innovations in years, and many say the machine is a potential game-changer in the ultra-competitive beverage industry.

Dispensing combinations of more than 120 of the company's brands from a touch screen – including Coke Zero, Fanta, Pibb and Dasani – the machines are being credited with driving double-digit sales for many of the restaurant chains that have adopted it.

Despite some anxiety about the reliability of computers and the added costs that come with more choices, the device has been so successful that competitors may soon come up with their own versions.

"It's giving consumers the ultimate option -- beverage choices that they can customize themselves," said Joe Pawlak, vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food research consultant. "It's also driving up food sales by luring in customers who are there just to use the machines."

But it comes at a cost. Traditionally, retailers are given the fountain equipment for free or through some other arrangement, including leases or as a loan from a bottler. For Freestyle, retailers pay a program fee that covers the equipment, installation, service, upgrades and the wireless data connection. Coca-Cola declined to disclose the fee amount.

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