As the low/no drinks trend gathers pace, retailers are faced with new questions about how best to merchandise such products – and many are blurring the lines with full-strength products, finds Nigel Huddleston
Merchandising low and no-alcohol drinks used to be relatively easy: a couple of beers and maybe a token wine brand, but the number of low/no drinks types, brands and pack sizes has become so vast that it’s not enough just to stick them on the bottom shelf of the parent category.
For now at least, most supermarkets have settled on a separate low/no bay or fixture that houses beer, wine, spirits and RTDs in one place, indicating that most low/no consumers are looking first for a low/no drink of some description on certain – or, in some cases, all – occasions, rather than being, say, beer drinkers who consume low or no-alcohol beer as part of a regular repertoire.
Asda is an outlier here, currently merchandising low/no beer and spirits in a low/no section, but displaying genuine low/no wines within the full-strength wine fixture.
Generally, any remaining brands from the tax-driven 5.5% abv wine craze of a few years back – such as Black Tower’s B and Echo Falls Fruit Fusions – are finding a home with lighter styles of wine such as Lambrusco, not in the standalone low/no section. And it’s worth noting that Aldi and Lidl are yet to embrace the low/ no trend, with branches visited by Drinks Retailing as Dry January kicked off carrying only a couple of token alcohol-free beers.
It was also interesting to note that few multiples were making a promotional song and dance about the month, with Sainsbury’s standing out in deploying a Drink January Dry gondola end, co-branded with Lucky Saint, Clean and Schweppes, and featuring banners and floor vinyls in the beer aisle, with Heineken’s alcohol-free version of Heineken, Moretti and Old Mout under the slogan Always a Choice.
Despite its popularity among multiples, the dedicated low/no fixture approach is far from universal. Jonathan Buckley, Co-op’s category buying manager for beer and soft drinks, says: “We merchandise low- and no-alcohol ranges as sub-sectors within their own drinks category year-round, and then additionally, during meal deal promotions, non-alcoholic options can be merchandised in chillers with the food offering for ease of shop”.
But Buckley adds that it is “currently operating some live in-store trials… taking the full range of BWS alcohol-free products and sitting them together in one fixture as a full drinks offer”.
Nisa retailer Dike & Son, in Stalbridge, Dorset, a former Drinks Retailing Awards winner, and which is closer in size and trading style to a big-four supermarket than a convenience store, takes a different approach.
Director Adam Vincent says: “We merchandise alcohol-free in with the alcohol. Our alcohol-free gin is with our gin, our alcohol-free beer is with our beer, and our alcohol-free wine is with our wine, and so on.
“The reason is that it’s such a big category for us now. We’ve got such a big range that we would probably need four bays to do it justice if we put everything together and it would look really odd to have three bays with anything from a gin, to an RTD, to a red or white wine to a lager in it. It would be like a car boot sale.
“If you take alcohol-free gins, we’ve got Gordon’s and the Co-op own-label, two from Warner’s, three different Seedlips and even a local one in Bowser.
“That’s eight different alcohol-free gins and we’ve got a couple of alcohol-free gin RTDs.
“Displaying things with full-strength alcohol will help people discover the market as well. When they come to buy a bottle of beer, they’ll see an alcohol-free version and think ‘I’ll try that’, rather than defaulting to a J20 or a Coke.”
Vincent draws parallels with merchandising approaches in the food aisles.
“We don’t have separate vegetarian bays anymore because vegetarian food has become so accepted across categories. I’m sure we started with a couple of shelves of gluten-free food but now it’s all the way around the store and merchandised into other fixtures.”
One reason that many retailers prefer a dedicated all-embracing low/no fixture is the reduced risk of customer confusion, accidentally picking up a 0.0% Gordon’s or Beck’s Blue instead of a full-strength version of the brand.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen,” Vincent says, “but people probably haven’t admitted it to us. Nobody’s ever complained.”
Specialist drinks all-rounder Gwin Llyn Wines in Pwllheli, Gwynedd, takes a mixed approach to its low/no merchandising.
“We have a dedicated display area for non-alcoholic wines and we always ensure that there is a choice of red, white, rosé and sparkling available,” says co-owner Dean Pritchard.
“We also have dedicated fridge space for low/no beers and ciders. Drop Bear from Swansea has an excellent range of 0.5% abv beers and lagers and we have found that Corona Cero and Guinness 0.0 have been popular.
“We group low/no wines and beers in their own dedicated areas as it makes it easier for the customer to view what is available and it helps them to make a choice.
“Spirit-wise, we stock the Warner’s 0% range and the Gordon’s 0.0%, which we display alongside their alcoholic counterparts. We find spirits to be the least popular of our low/no offering.”
What the drinks aisles are yet to see is an umbrella grouping together of products with different, for want of a better phrase, mindful characteristics, such as low/no, vegan and organic, as is sometimes seen with supermarkets’ health-food or free-from fixtures, where gluten-free versions of big brand lagers sometimes reside.
In wine and beer, a common practice among leading independents is instead to make such products stand out from a place on the main fixture through appropriate symbols or colour-coding. “We do not group drinks which are vegan, Fairtrade, organic, ‘natural’ or gluten-free together in a mindful section,” says Pritchard, “but we make clear on the shelf labels if they are organic, vegan, low-intervention and so on.”
The complexity of the low/no drinks market, with its nuances of abv levels and product types, means that even brand owners and suppliers don’t always agree about how they’d like to see their own brands merchandised.
Ellie Webb, founder of the Caleño nonalcoholic spirits range, which has achieved widespread supermarket listings, says: “I feel it would be great to have dedicated spaces within each of the respective drinks categories, which are clearly signposted as low/no. That means Caleño would sit within the spirits aisle, alongside gins, rums and other alcoholic spirits.”
At the moment, it tends to appear on dedicated catch-all low/no fixtures.
“People will naturally gravitate towards the drinks aisle they shop most often,” adds Webb, “So if Caleño is situated next to beer, a shopper may not necessarily find the non-alcoholic spirit alternative they are searching for.”
Jacqui Harris, trade manager at Adnams, whose Ghost Ship 0.5% is also widely listed in multiples, says: “We want to see it merchandised in a specific low/no category, alongside other no and low products, as this is where the majority of shoppers tend to look for them in supermarkets.
“Having said that, the overall category is changing and strengthening, and merchandising will need to adapt.”
Harris adds: “As the brand grows and the low/no market expands, we would like to see Ghost Ship 0.5% merchandised in additional appropriate areas, for example alongside soft drinks in the chilled impulse range in convenience retail, garages and cafés.”
Alcohol-free brewer Mash Gang says its collaboration with Northern Monk on its Self Titled 0.5% abv IPA is notable for “breaking all the rules” by going into the craft beer aisle in Morrisons, rather than the alcohol-free one.