Industry authorities share with Lucy Britner their thoughts on what the big issues are likely to be for the year ahead

MINDFUL DRINKING – LAURA WILLOUGHBY, FOUNDER, CLUB SODA

We have got to a tipping point. Consumers know that alcohol-free tastes good and now expect to see options when they go for their weekly shop, as well as in specialist stores.

The big supermarkets have filled the shelf with known alcohol brands’ low and no extensions, so consumers are beginning to shop around for more. They want to find their best tipple and won’t compromise like they would with alcohol; alcohol-free choices are taste led. Smaller retailers need to follow the lead of the supermarkets, and curate their own ranges. Club Soda is stepping up in 2024 and supporting retailers and venues to do this.

Demand for low and alcohol-free wine and wine-shaped drinks is exploding. The quality has gone up several notches in the last year and consumers are now expecting to see alcohol-free options among the traditional wine selection in the off-trade, and on restaurant menus.

Low-alcohol will make its presence felt. The consumer is getting more sophisticated, and we are asked for lower-abv spirits and wines a lot. The duty change in beer will see more brewers offering mid-strength table beers.

Finally, there are specialist alcohol-free retailers and venues popping up all over the country. I am looking forward to working with them to help educate the trade, as well as consumers, about low and alcohol-free, so make them a pit stop when thinking through your range too.

EDUCATION AND RECRUITMENT – MICHELLE BRAMPTON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, WINE & SPIRIT EDUCATION TRUST

The main challenge of recruiting and retaining good people is still with us in 2024, particularly in the hospitality sector.

Since the pandemic, people working in hospitality have different expectations. They are looking to work for companies that offer good training and career progression, as well as having a good workplace culture. In order to attract new recruits, employers – particularly the good ones – are investing in their learning and development programmes. They are looking to upskill and develop their people through a mixture of on-the-job learning and external subject expertise, with an emphasis on offering globally recognised qualifications. They see training as the most valuable tool for reducing recruitment costs, increasing retention and ensuring they have engaged successful teams.

There is also a move towards hybrid learning, which we believe will continue to grow in 2024 as students look for more flexible ways to study. Students expect their studying to be able to fit in with their lifestyle. Their preference is to combine online study with in-person elements, particularly for tasting practice, allowing them to go at their own pace and revisit topics easily. We are also finding that our informal learning sessions, through our global Events Hub, are becoming increasingly popular – especially our 30-minute bitesize sessions and our new industry talks which cover issues such as sustainability in the global drinks industry.

We are also expecting to see a shift towards more cross-category training, with an ongoing growth in our spirits and sake qualifications and the launch of our beer qualifications. WSET Levels 1 & 2 Awards in beer will be available from selected course providers in the UK from February.

Finally, I expect to see more focus on equality, diversity and inclusion in the UK drinks industry, which will need to be supported with education. At WSET we have a clear vision for creating positive social impact through purposeful activity around the world. This means we’ll be working harder than ever in 2024 to make drinks education accessible and affordable for individuals from underrepresented communities and those facing financial hardship. 

LUXURY DRINKS RETAILING – NICK LARSSON-BELL, SENIOR SPIRITS AND BEER BUYER, HARVEY NICHOLS

English whiskies will continue to move into a more mainstream environment, with retailers allowing for larger spaces devoted to the growing category, and producers moving to more established distributors, making them more accessible than ever.

Whiskies from Scandinavia and Australia will start to see better traction this year. Tequila will continue to show great growth, with more brands coming to the forefront and pushing hard on luxury blanco and ultra-premium anejo and extra anejo, retailing at £150+ a bottle, as well as lower price point flavoured tequilas and tequila liqueurs entering the market.

We see the luxury drinks category being much more focused on having curated selections. Instead of trying to impress customers with the largest offering, we will start to see condensed categories which will allow retailers to make more seasonal changes for wine and spirits, including larger offerings for Christmas. Luxury events are also on the rise, with more and more consumers seeking to experience high price point brands before they invest in the physical products.

CONVENIENCE RETAILING – JOE TURNER, COMMERCIAL BUYING MANAGER FOR WINE & SPIRITS, CO-OP

Brands and labels that show purpose will do well in 2024 – whether that be B Corp accredited, Fairtrade or products that illustrate strong eco-credentials. At Co-op, we continue to see demand growing for products that resonate with the core beliefs of our shoppers without compromise. That’s why we continue to champion Fairtrade and remain the largest retailer of ethically sourced wines in the world.

We’ve seen the opportunity for ready-to-drink formats grow massively and I envisage this to be no different in 2024 across Co-op stores and the wider UK market. What I find particularly interesting is the increase in blurred lines across drinks categories – we’re now seeing exciting innovation that crosses the boundaries of not just drinks but food categories too – from wine-based cocktails to CBD-infused products.

Value for money will continue to be a big priority for consumers, which presents an ongoing opportunity for own-label ranges. We saw a significant uptake in own-label penetration at Co-op in the last half of 2023, with volume uplifts as high as 70% on key own-label products across BWS. In 2024, it’s vital that convenience retail continues to offer this accessibility into the category, to complement its branded proposition, not to divert from it.

Attracting new consumers into the wine category, as well as maintaining the existing customer base, will continue to be important, especially in the face of exciting innovations across the wider drinks categories. We’ve made great strides at Co-op to break down the barriers surrounding the wine category and the “wall of wine”, which we know can be overwhelming for some customers, by fundamentally changing the way we merchandise wines. They are now grouped together by style and type, rather than country of origin. It’s something we will be continuing to evolve.