Final weeks of 2006 take biggest share

ACNielsen consultant graham page reviews the off-trade christmas

Last time I wrote, I referred to the heavy price paid by drinks companies or retailers who failed to respond to the reality that between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of most drinks categories' sales are in the final few weeks of each year.

Failure to recognise this fact and respond positively leaves annual budgets shot and the losses never get made up .

It is therefore worth having a detailed look at the winners and losers in retail liquor sales in the British off-trade to Dec 30 2006, with the numbers and trends coming from our Scantrack service.

Broadly, the off-trade market was relatively flat in the 12 weeks to Dec 30 with liquor up a mere 1 per cent in volume and up 2 per cent in value, suggesting some higher price points than in 2005, particularly on spirits.

There was a strong improvement for liquor through the impulse channel - sales here improved later in 2006, after declines in the first half. This resulted in an increased in their share for the whole year. Multiple grocers' growth slowed as the year wore on, though it was still the biggest channel by some way.

However, switches in ownership after the break up of Kwik Save saw fewer shops in the multiple grocers and more in multiple off-licences.

Online sales up

Christmas week share was bigger in 2006 than 2005 and the week after Christmas was more important as well. This means focus on both weeks in 2007, given Christmas Day is on a Tuesday.

Tesco has increased its store count by 50 per cent over five years, so doing business and getting representation with its superstores, Extra, Express or Metro fascias will be crucial to many 2007 drinks plans. For example, Tesco now accounts for 7 per cent of British beer sales and, over Christmas, £1 in £3 spent in multiple grocers was in Tesco.

We should also remember that online sales of goods grew 50 per cent over the period, according to IMRG, progressively putting more pressure on retailers.

The off-trade winners were clearly wine and cider, both driving growth. Beer, driven by standard lager, was up 2 per cent in volume, but static in value, with the week before Christmas the biggest ever for beer. This suggests price points were as keen as ever with no price inflation at all, yet market volume growth.

RTDs slid down 15 per cent on volume and value and, while this remains a ­sizeable category, with some brands holding volumes well, the consumer ­appears to have moved on from this fashion-driven sector.

Spirit volumes suffered, with fewer deep price cuts and promotions, ­meaning they were generally more ­expensive than in 2005 - then £20 for two litres from early December, this year £25 for two litres - so spirits fell 3 per cent in volume and were static in value. I judge that, despite this, some brand owners and retailers may have made more money from higher price points.

Bottles at 70cl bottles did better than 1-litre, perhaps price-point driven.

Cognac, imported whiskey, speciality drinks and vodka all did well, but others less so, with white rum and cream liqueurs having a bad time.

Table wines were up by 2 per cent in volume but up 5 per cent in value, with some recovery having fallen away in the first half of the year, with rosé again a star growth driver.

Prices appear to have moved upwards here, so retailers and suppliers may have had a better Yuletide. Cider continued its market charge, rising 22 per cent in volume and 28 per cent in value. There's no point discounting when the consumer is beating a path to your door .

This may be the luck of the Irish ­followed by great marketing, or some longer-term brand building by market leader Strongbow which, after all, has well over half the market. It also deserves credit for cider's renaissance. Whatever, cider's growth is hitting beer, RTDs and other long drinks and the whole category is rejuvenated

Double-digit increases.

Champagne grew 1 per cent in volume and 8 per cent in value, having had one spectacular week in early December. Sparkling wine picked up in the past four weeks, with value up 5 per cent. All in a category seeing less discounting than previously, despite own-label pressures.

There were some extraordinary double-digit increases in the week between Christmas and New Year, with many ­spirits, fortified wines, lagers and ciders well above last year's sales. This reinforces the fact that, in drinks retailing, Christmas is now a 10-day to two-week break for many, and for most two long weekends (unless, of course, you're in retail ).

Failure at Christmas is an annual failure, because liquor sales can rarely be pulled back later in the year. Christmas and New Year are not just the icing on the annual sales cake, but a large chunk of the cake itself.

Of course, what we now have is the lull after the retail storm. Consumers' homes are loaded with low-priced stock, some of which will be with them for months, limiting repeat purchase for many categories, for many weeks or longer .

We can expect to see very keen retail liquor prices again for all drinks categories in 2007. Whether someone tries to get some value back into drinks categories remains to be seen, but it will be hard fought.

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