Focus - Positive outlook for US in face of economic turmoil
The strong growth in the US market for wines and spirits is certain to be checked by the financial crisis. But Chris Losh found wines and spirits companies to be relatively sanguine about the US in spite of the current turmoil, anticipating that the switch to at-home entertaining and a need for affordable indulgence will bolster sales during difficult times.
For the last five to ten years the US market has been a shining beacon of hope for wine and spirit producers everywhere. There may have been some typically European sniffiness at the influence of Robert Parker or the unseemly swooning over Grey Goose, but this was still a market that had everything: good volumes, high spend and plenty of potential for growth.
And then the economy got all dysfunctional on us. Any time the word 'liquidity' is essential dinner party vocabulary, you know things are bad.
And yet, while Wall Street is lying on a hospital bed with a US$700bn intravenous drip sticking from its arm, the drinks industry currently has little more than a touch of flu. Unpleasant for sure, but eminently survivable.
While half of the respondents to a survey conducted by the Wine Marketing Council in May said they were worse off than a year ago, they also said they were still continuing to drink the same amount of wine as always. Of course, in the five months since that survey things have worsened significantly and the next one (due at the end of this month) could make for rather tougher reading. But it does suggest there's an element of truth in the oft-cited theory that wine volumes don't fall much in the US during a recession.
But even if volumes don't change much, trends do. Already, specialist outlets have seen a drop-off, while the supermarkets and big box stores have seen a rise in volumes as one-stop shopping (probably driven by fuel prices as much as anything) grows in popularity.
Interestingly, though, some of the more esoteric elements of the wine market seem to be fairly resilient. Green issues remain on the agenda for example. "People are really understanding wine better in the US and are willing to make purchase decisions based on elements like the impact on the environment as well as the quality of the wine," says Jean-Charles Boisset of French negociant group Boisset.
Nonetheless, European wines have fared less well, hit by the double whammy of a strong euro/weak dollar and a major drop-off in the on-trade. This is the sector that is hurting the most, with market analysts AC Nielsen estimating that half of US consumers are eating/drinking out less than they did a year ago. Business entertaining is significantly down, and away from the weekends things are far quieter.
All in all, this is probably a good time to be a Chilean wine producer who can make good Wednesday night supermarket wine at under US$10 a bottle, and who invoices in dollars.
For spirits, the downturn in the on-trade is potentially more serious. Faced with the choice of $20 buying two steaks and a bottle of wine or one Appletini, significant numbers of consumers are, unsurprisingly, choosing the former.
"You will continue to see a consumer shift from the on- to the off-premise. This will make at-home entertaining key," says Zsoka McDonald, senior director for external communications at Diageo North America. "Consumers are being more thoughtful about their purchases. There is more of a back-to-basics attitude."
In other words, not such a great time to have bought Ketel One, but a good time to be the owner of Smirnoff.
Over at Pernod Ricard, the attitude is more upbeat. "Premiumisation is proving to be a durable trend as spirits and wine remain an affordable indulgence, even in tough times," says a spokesman confidently, adding that "smart, efficient and targeted interactive marketing is more important than ever in this environment".
The company cites the 25% growth in Jameson on the back of the brand's 'Comedy Tour' as proof that good marketing can pay dividends even in the current climate. But since Pernod is currently digesting its $9bn swallowing of Absolut, it's safe to assume that big-ticket marketing programmes might be put on hold for a few months.
The Nielsen figures by price point are not as bad as one might expect: the premium spirit category is up 4%, super-premium 2% and ultra-premium 8% by value. These figures, though, are for the year to the end of August, before the financial hurricanes of September blew in. The calendar year stats could be ugly unless things pick up significantly over Christmas.
Whether premiumisation of spirits turns out to be a long-term trend facing a minor blip or a temporary noughties phenomenon that came to an end in 2008 probably depends on the 70m twenty-somethings of the 'millennial generation'.
Brand aware, quality-conscious and, until recently, consistently wealthy, their habits could well hold the key to the success or failure of thousands of bars and dozens of brands. It's likely that there will be some blood on the varnished beech floorboards before the next 12 months are out, particularly for outlets that look good and price high, but deliver little in the way of expertise.
For wine, things look steadier, not least because the product remains an affordable element of a civilised lifestyle for a third of the population.
"The next nine to 12 months will see a growth in the competitively priced wines as people entertain more at home and are cautious when they go out," says Jean-Charles Boisset. "But long term, structurally the [wine] business is solid and the fundamentals are good. I'm optimistic about the wine business here - much more than in Europe."
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