Lockdown drinking – what have we seen?

This week, we hosted the first in what I hope will be a regular series of data and insight webinars, with our friends at Nielsen. We took a look at some of the numbers behind alcohol sales during lockdown, some of the trends we saw, and what we might see now that pubs, bars and restaurants are able to re-open. So, what did we learn?

We learned that, unsurprisingly, the forced closure of on-trade venues in March led to more alcohol sales in shops and supermarkets, where large volume gains in sales of alcohol were recorded. Supermarkets benefitted from a big weekly shop being slightly bigger than usual, and they saw alcohol sales increase. This was particularly true in the early weeks of lockdown, but the figures settled down somewhat after an initial wave of panic-buying and stocking up.

We also learned that shoppers would head to their local off-licence or convenience store to ‘top up’ on alcohol during the week, in smaller quantities.

Another area we explored on the webinar was the growth in sales of alcohol online. Online-only retailers, small merchants with an online shopping function and alcohol subscription services all benefitted from drinkers valuing the convenience and safety of having contact-free delivery on their doorstop whilst they couldn’t get to the pub.

Some more established online delivery players were slow to increase booking slots, meaning people had to look elsewhere to get their alcohol delivered quickly. Consumers are used to shopping online and having the option of next-day delivery, and these expectations have carried over into shopping for alcohol online. Any business that was well-prepared for online bookings and prompt delivery prior to Coronavirus did well, and those that were not prepared had to catch up, fast.

We also touched on some of the categories that have been performing well during lockdown. Wines from Australia did particularly well, and the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio grape varieties performed well, too. As for spirits, value vodka and flavoured gins were driving lockdown growth.

Despite all this, there were some areas we didn’t have time to cover on the webinar, notably around the re-opening of our pubs, bars and restaurants. What have we seen since we could get back out and drink in social settings?

We know that on-trade venues have had to work with reduced capacity, but over the first 2 weeks of trading we’ve also learned that they are working with reduced demand. Only 45% of pubs opened on the weekend of 4th July, and for those that did open, sales were down 44% on the same weekend last year.

But how tough it is also depends on where the venues are – suburbs and smaller towns have been enjoying the ‘boost’ of welcoming visitors that would otherwise commute elsewhere to work, and a quick drink in the pub is a lot more appealing at 5:15 after working from home than it is when you’ve just got off a packed, sweaty and invariably delayed commuted train at 6:30 or later.

Any on-trade recovery is dependent on how the Government continues to deal with the outbreak of Covid-19. We’ve already seen the first local lockdown, in Leicester, where venues were required to stay closed for an additional 2 weeks, and this appears to be the Government’s preferred method of containment going forward. The WSTA has been vocal about the dangers and potential impact of a second wave of mass closures, and how damaging that could be to a sector already struggling, and in order for many venues to survive we must avoid a further national and prolonged lockdown.