A solitary tasting note sits on the shelf-edge of a promotional fixture.

It’s for Estrella Damm lager and it stands out because it’s the only such piece of POS throughout the whole of the 100,000sq ft Tesco Extra store in Sussex.

I can be pretty certain of this because, for 13 weeks under lockdown, I covered every inch of the store over and over, picking online orders for the supermarket after the bottom temporarily fell out of the freelance writing market. 

Happily, that picked up again, so here I am, but with a reframed view of what’s actually going on in the off-trade rather than what
writers, marketers and publicists think or say what’s going on.

For the sake of clarity, this wasn’t some PR managed journalistic back-to-the-floor assignment; it was a real temporary job for a real sub-£9 an hour wage. Apart from keeping money coming in, it was a useful way to recalibrate the old antenna about what consumers – the real ones who eat takeaways and watch reality TV shows, not the ones that run Shoreditch beard spas and cat cafés – actually buy.

If, like me and many in the drinks industry, you’re immersed in a public relations bubble and have been bombarded for years with category “insights” designed to reinforce a particular brand narrative, you might well by now really believe that the average British shopping trolley contains three bottles of fruit fusion wine, six bottles of Prosecco, a selection of obscure craft beers, litres of alcohol-free spirits, numerous cans or mini-bottles of wine and oceans of hard seltzers. But it doesn’t, except for the Prosecco.

Some, but not all, popped up on the picking device from time to time, but for every premium gin in a fancy bottle there were dozens of litres of Bombay Sapphire on price promotion as well.

We’re so used to brands in the categories above heralding phenomenal growth rates that we sometimes forget the reason the growth rates are so huge is because the markets are so small in the first place, not because they’re so big.

If we stop to think we all know, for example, that Gordon’s is the nation’s bestselling gin, but surround yourself with the drinks industry PR machine for too long and you might imagine that it’s actually one made from 108 locally-foraged botanicals in the Brecon Beacons based on an ancient recipe found in a secret cellar.

Of course, we only have to look at the charts of the bestselling brands to remind ourselves there’s a difference between an emerging trend and the big stuff in the market – but often we just don’t bother, because as drinks professionals who like to explore and sample, often without the risk of having to pay for it, it’s just a bit dull to start talking about Hardys or Stella Artois or Smirnoff.

The other thing that really hit home is just how instant the consumer buy-in to promotions is.

It’s particularly noticeable in wine, where the weekly bestsellers cycle between Trivento, Barefoot, Campo Viejo and so on, just because they have three quid off or are sitting on a gondola end. There are customers who will only buy six bottles of a favourite, but such loyalty is hard won by brands when most consumers are so price-fickle.

One quick-fix expounded by “experts” like me is to work more on communication in-store, which sounds great in theory. But first-hand experience suggests most shoppers couldn’t give a toss about the “stories” behind brands or even the difference between Sauvignon Blancs made on different sides of the world: they want a decent price that allows them to stay in their comfort zone.

Which brings us back to that lonely tasting note. Even if brands and buying teams could agree that more steer should be given at the point of sale, it’s unlikely that a hardworking night shift, stretched already just to get enough stock on the shelves, would have the time, energy or inclination to implement them throughout the BWS – or any other – department. The surprise wasn’t that the note for Estrella was the only one to be found, but that it had managed to get there at all.