Exploring alcohol trends during lock-down

Exploring alcohol trends during lock-down

Blog | 01 March, 2022

Exploring alcohol trends during lock-down

With the UK’s pubs, bars and restaurants shut as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, the way many of us eat, drink and socialise has changed dramatically since March. It has been a similar time of change for wine and spirit businesses, with the Coronavirus outbreak presenting numerous challenges – those supplying the on-trade saw sales dry up practically overnight, those with on-site shops at their winery or distillery were forced to close, and in order to survive, many businesses had to display tremendous agility to respond to consumer demand for ordering their alcohol online for home delivery.

Whilst the landscape has changed drastically in the last couple of months, and with no one able to say for certain when or if the UK’s alcohol market will return to how it was before the pandemic, it is still interesting to look at some of the trends we were seeing at the backend of 2019.

In the off-trade, RTDs were growing faster than any other alcohol category. 2019 saw RTDs sold in supermarkets and shops worth £338 million, up 16% on the year before. It’s reasonable to think that this growth will continue, or perhaps even accelerate, across the first 6 months of 2020, much of which has been in lockdown. Established producers continue to innovate in the RTD category, and new products are launched all the time.

As with many of the trends in our drinking in the UK, it’s often helpful to look State-side for a clue as to how things may progress. Just as the explosion in popularity of IPAs that revolutionised the beer market across America set the tone for a new wave of hoppier, often higher-abv beers from 2015 onwards in the UK, hard seltzers, as they are marketed in the US, look set to be the next imported trend.

2019 growth figures for RTDs in the USA were over 200% by volume, with some sub-categories seeing enormous growth, sometimes as high as 500%.

In the on-trade, gin continued to be the biggest driver of growth as consumers tried new cocktails, experimented with new gin flavours and even dabbled in new tonics. With no on-trade activity since March, it remains to be seen whether gin can keep the crown in the future – will those drinking at home develop new tastes or habits that they will then carry with them to pubs and bars once they re-open?

As an industry, we still don’t know when our on-trade venues can re-open, much less what they will look like once re-opened, so it is very difficult to predict how consumers will behave once they return – assuming they do return with a similar enthusiasm for drinking out as before.

With people unable to go out to enjoy a drink, it’s unsurprising that sales of alcohol are up in supermarkets and shops. The latest numbers from Nielsen show that sales of beers, wines and spirits are up 26% when compared with the same period last year, and recent insight from CGA suggests that more people are looking to try wine at home now they’re unable to get to the pub.

This has led to some suggestions in the media that Brits are boozing their way through lockdown – but is this really true?

We have seen two surveys released in the last week or so, one by YouGov on behalf of Drinkaware, and the other by the Portman Group in association with the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, that suggest this may not be the case.

The study by the Portman Group shows that 65% of Brits are drinking the same, less, or even not drinking at all during lockdown. Of the 35% that are drinking more, 28% of this group are only drinking ‘a little bit more’. There is little in the survey to suggest an epidemic of binge drinking – 81% of those drinking less are within the CMO guidelines of 14 units a week, 72% of those saying they are drinking the same are within the guidelines, and even within the category that are drinking more alcohol during lockdown, 44% of these drinkers are still drinking less than 14 units a week.

The trends identified in this survey within the UK are broadly reflective of the global picture, too, with around 80% of those polled saying they aren’t increasing their alcohol consumption during lockdown. This figure is higher than in the UK, but it’s important to recognise that the global figure includes polling from both South Africa and Mexico – two countries that have placed heavy restrictions and bans on the sale of alcohol during their lockdown periods.

Because of a desire to stay at home and limit contact with others as much as possible, and the long queues (and lack of stock in the first week or two of lockdown) at shops and supermarkets, it doesn’t come as a shock that many people are looking online to buy their alcohol. Small breweries, distilleries and vineyards unable to operate their taprooms, distillery shops and cellar doors are taking orders online and offering local delivery, with some now scaling up to deliver nationwide. Alcohol subscription services are seeing an uptick in subscribers, and some companies are even completely altering their business model to offer direct-to-consumer online sales for the first time.

Nielsen’s latest numbers show that online sales are up 103% on last year, and it’s a similar pattern across the continent – Italy has seen a 202% increase in online orders, consumers in Spain are ordering online 130% more than last year, and the French are using the internet for their shopping 80% more. With social distancing measures likely to be in place in some form for the foreseeable future, it’s likely that even with a gradual opening of the on-trade in the coming weeks and months, many consumers will make online alcohol purchases part of their ‘new normal’.

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