Duck ... it's going to be a 'bun fight'
The annual Christmas sales war looms and this year retailers have to face high volumes left over from a miserable summer. Nigel Huddleston reports
It's been a bad year for beer. The rain washed away the summer's sales and there was no football World Cup to prop things up.
The summer's floods have also brought pressure on brewers' cost base with low cereal crop yields coming on top of rising packaging costs. It all means the beer sector goes into the Christmas period on a knife edge, with the major retailers almost certain to use beer as a footfall driver once again, but with margins under more strain than ever.
Steve McAllister, managing director for multiples at Stella Artois brewer InBev UK, predicts that the recent pattern of supermarket multi-buy beer promotions is unlikely to change much.
"The fact is retailers want to increase the weight-of-purchase and build footfall to grow market share," he says. "So we expect to see promotions based on purchases of two and three bulk packs of major beer and cider brands rather than straight price promotions."
Mark Gerken, sales managing director at Scottish & Newcastle UK, agrees that Christmas will be "aggressive within retail".
He adds: "We are likely to see a continuation of multiple case offers to attract shoppers into the aisle."
For the moment, the retailers' multi-buys on big packs remain close to the chest, though Tesco is teasing shoppers with two-for-ones on a number of four-packs.
But already there are considerable straight discounts on several major lager brands, which is just what the industry has come to expect.
"Price cutting on beer is nothing new," says McAllister. "It actually stretches back more than a decade to 1995 and came after the supermarkets switched their attention to beer following the infamous turkey wars of 1994, when prices were cut deeply to drive footfall.
"After that, it became beer's turn. It's good for the supermarkets and it does generate additional consumer interest in the category, but ultimately it causes a decline in beer value."
But this year more than ever, the question is how much the industry can cope with heavy discounting, whatever form it takes. For some brewers, pressure on costs mean prices need to go up.
Rupert Thompson, managing director of Wychwood, says: "I can't see any way around this. There's no way that the brewers are going to be able to absorb it, and consumers are expecting it, as they are with other categories like bread and milk.
"If beer didn't go up it would look very odd. It would be unreasonable for brewers not to increase prices and I don't know how most of them could afford not to."
Bill Simmons, national controller for the off-trade at Fuller's, says the cheap beer problem has become ingrained in the national psyche.
"People have become conditioned to the fact that beer is cheap," he says. "In premium ales we still retain some measure of premiumisation and respectability, but we need to get more of that and see retail prices reflecting the true cost of producing beer.
"We need to reflect on the shelf the real cost of making good quality beer. You don't trade Dom
Perignon at the same price as cheap sparkling wine, so why should quality brewers have to trade at the bottom end?"
Simmons says "it would be logical" for prices to rise, but he isn't holding his breath. The dearth of summer sales means prices could be even more keen than ever this Christmas.
"I live in the real world. If someone's got a lot of beer to get rid of and they're under a lot of pressure to do so, which is probably the case with what we've had recently, then they will sell it cheaply.
"This Christmas there's going to be huge stack of beer out there on the back of what we've seen this summer. People have got whole warehouses full of beer and they're all looking for a way to get rid of it. It's going to be a bun fight."
Michael Cook, director of imported beer at Pierhead Purchasing, is equally pessimistic. He says: "A mentality has developed in UK consumers of watching beer prices. They watch, and wait, and then all buy at the optimum time."
Greene King take-home director Neil Jardine says smaller retailers need to look at issues such as "gift offers and product differentiation" to minimise the impact of supermarket pricing.
"Christmas is a time when people want to impress visitors and treat themselves," he says. "Lager can be quite bland and consumers are looking for something different. The key is to differentiate on beer apart from on price."
With the big players desperate to shift some volume, that could be easier said than done.
Cheapest big brand deals at UK supermarkets
Beck's 20x27.5cl £7.49 £1.36
Tesco Foster's/Carlsberg 18x44cl £10.00 £1.26
Asda Carlsberg 12x44cl £6.80 £1.29
Somerfield Carlsberg 12x44cl
Source: online price survey, Sept 26, 2007
Supermarkets stock winter ales
Fuller's seasonal Old Winter Ale will be an exclusive with Sainsbury's this year, with the blackberry beer Jack Frost listed by Waitrose.
Bill Simmons, Fuller's national controller for the off-trade, says: "We had Jack Frost in Sainsbury's for the last few years and Waitrose has taken Old Winter, but we've switched them round to give a bit of variety."
Old Winter is a 5.3 per cent abv "classic winter brew" made with crystal malt, says Simmons, while the fruit beer has an abv of 4.5 per cent.
Both will go into store in late October with an expected retail price of £1.59.
Old Timer's back in the scene
Wiltshire brewer Wadworth will once again be releasing its end-of-year seasonal ale Old Timer. The beer has been brewed to the same recipe - with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and a cereal mix heavy in pale malts - for the past 40 years. It will be available in 50cl bottles with an abv of 5.8 per cent.
Guinness beefs up special packs
Guinness has increased the number of special packs available in the off-trade this Christmas.
A range of promotional multipacks includes extra-fill, a calendar send-away offer and two limited edition packs - one containing a free glass inside a 10-pack and the second a collection pack with four cans each of Guinness Draught, Original and Foreign Extra Stout.
There are also a further 14 Guinness gift packs on the market.
Steve Hamilton, senior brand manager at Guinness GB, says: "The Guinness shopper is extremely valuable to retailers, driving value across the category.
"Guinness Draught shoppers spend 71 per cent more on alcohol than the average BWS shopper, and 34 per cent more than average beer shopper."
Brewer is on top of the Wold
Yorkshire brewer Wold Top is introducing a selection pack of some of it most popular ales for Christmas. Each gift box contains four 50cl bottles chosen from five of the company's brands - Mars Magic, Wold Top, Wold Gold, Falling Stone and Wolds Way.
Hall & Woodhouse mixes up its best
Hall & Woodhouse is putting together a mixed case containing three bottles each of Blandford Fly, Badger Original, First Gold and its autumn seasonal beer Pumpkin Ale for Costco.
The brewer will also be following the recent exclusive release of Pumpkin Ale and Poacher's Choice for Tesco with another exclusive in the form of Pickled Partridge, a bottled version of a popular seasonal cask ale from the brewer.
Marketing manager Rick Payne says: "New product development is important for us because it excites consumers through creating choice and repertoire."
Samichlaus muscles its way back in
Imported beer firm Pierhead Purchasing is listing a number of seasonal beers, including the classic Samichlaus from Austria, once the holder of the title of the world's strongest beer.
The beer is brewed each Christmas and aged for a year before being sold.
Pierhead's other Christmas beers come from French brewers Meteor and Jenlain.
Asda, Tesco in mood for Christmas Pud
Wells & Young's will be selling its Christmas Pudding Ale in a gift pack with a branded pint glass in Asda and Tesco.
The brand will also be appearing as single bottles in Sainsbury's.
The brewer claims the 5.5 per cent abv brew was the best-selling Christmas ale in multiple grocers over each of the last three Christmases.