Tales of Ales and Tails

Tales of Ale and TailsOn a recent trip Stateside, I got a real flavour of one of the retailer’s major dilemmas. The store was a large Publix on the Gulf Coast of Florida – certainly as big as a large UK supermarket. As always, I was spending more time looking for stimulus for work than actually doing the food shopping … and then I turned down the beer aisle.   Now, my figures will be slightly out but close enough to be both defensible and illustrative. In the US, the market has two major brewing players – Anheuser Busch Inbev and Miller Coors who control about 80 – 85% of the market’s supply. And then there are the craft brewers, alliances of craft brewers and speciality importers.

Yes, craft beer is likely to be more profitable on a unit basis than big beer, but to command well over 50% of the space? Commercial craziness, no?

That’s the dilemma for the retailer, particularly if you are mainstream / mid-market. How do you optimise your range and space and how the hell do you decide which brands to back, to underspace, to overspace?

Going back to craft beer (or increasingly snacks, spirits, bread, cheese…) it would be easy to argue both sides. For the big boys, it would go something like this: ‘Hey, you’re crazy. I know there’s all this craft beer hype, but just look at the rate of sale and the market share… and times that by the price we command… you should be overspacing us not underspacing us!’. If you’re a craft brewer, equally, you could say, ‘Consumers are tired and dissatisfied with the same old beer choice. They’re individuals not ‘consumers’ and a craft beer range caters to them, shows that you are a specialist and ….well, look at the profitability’.

There’s no right or wrong here, but there seem to be some common denominators.

How appealing is the category: craft beer is over faced because consumers care; it is increasing in both household penetration, frequency and basket size. Authentic beers, with interesting stories are cutting through with shoppers when all big beers can offer in return are new can sizes or bottle shapes. Essentially, research is showing that when a category can drag shoppers off their habitual shopping trajectory, then it’s worth backing.

Brands count: craft beer in the US isn’t stocked out with hopeless chancers. There are strong emerging brands. Brands that are working either because they are genuinely different (say, Dogfish Head), local (say Cigar City Brewing from Tampa) or frankly growing in fame and appeal (say Sierra Nevada, Stone Brewing, Sam Adams, The Bruery). Over in the UK, with Tesco for one aiming the gun at these long tails, it’s the categories where no brands exist, where own label can do as good as, if not better job than the branded alternative where attention is needed.

Principles matter: many of the craft brands in the US have managed to grow in value off the back of their founding principles, principles which they have stayed true to. Jim Koch of Boston Beer is a divisive character because he unapologetically popularised craft beer by owning the agenda, by being in the face of big beer owners and drinkers. ‘Here is a better choice’ he would say, when not dunking himself in vats of Boston Beer. But equally, Fritz Maytag saved Anchor; Keith Grossman built up Sierra Nevada on the back of kit he beat into shape with old ball hammers and welding kit. All of them wanted to drink better beer, so they did something about it. Brands of conviction, attract.

The competitive space is changing: in Chris Anderson’s book, ‘The Long Tail’*, he talks about how retailing will change because of the impact of the internet. Look at Amazon: online bookshop becomes frankly, anything they can sell that they can store and transport; no stores, no range reviews, no square footage to overly worry about. Want a rare Dutch flower arranging book (yes, Mum, I’m referring to you), they’ll get it. As consumers we understand that that might not be the case for a Sainsbury’s or an Asda or a Tesco – but for how long. Internet retailing allows us not to worry about big brands, the Number 1s and 2s, but any brand that takes our fancy. Until food retailers abandon their mega sheds, any strategy will be a compromise – we’ve got a big range, but…..

Interestingly it seems to open up opportunities at both ends. At the ‘endless choice’ end of retail will be the likes of Amazon; at the other, quite insightfully, will be the focused retailers who recognise that as shoppers our brains can only handle so much choice. Reduce the range, reduce the choice, watch sales grow: take Lidl or Screwfix.

And so it turns out, that was my dilemma. Standing in front of this amazing beer fixture; looking at all the choices, reading labels, thinking ‘Oooh, I’ve never had that..’ but totally unable to make up my mind.

*Chris Anderson, ‘The Long Tail’, Hyperion, 2006

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers the direct route to success for categories, companies and brands. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260