What could be better than a cold beer on a hot summer afternoon? Not much, according to the beer manufacturers and supermarket retailers who are getting ready to pull out all the stops to push the already strong beer sales even further in the next few months.
Not surprisingly, some of the promotions that are being prepared now for rollout in the first part of the summer are planned around the beach, backyard and barbecue themes. But some beer makers are also banking on different tactics to bring their products to the attention of consumers. And they are all prepared to work with supermarket owners and managers to optimize beer sales in the food channels.
Beer as a category has grown steadily, if somewhat slowly, in recent years, but imports and light beers, as a segment of the overall category, continue to skyrocket. The category as a whole is particularly valuable to supermarkets because it is a big-ticket sale, being one of the more expensive items many people purchase while in the food store.
"Beer and alcoholic beverages in general are a good category for us, because they are a large dollar sale without much work from the store management," said Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising for Dahl's Food Markets, based in Des Moines, Iowa, with 11 stores in the area.
"We promote alcoholic beverages the same as other categories, with the emphasis shifting to beer and tonics in the summertime and away from the wines, which are emphasized for the winter holidays. Liquors as a whole are 3% to 4% of our business, with all of the stores having both warm and cold beers," he added.
Sales in the beer category are still being driven by the imports and light beers, as they have been for several years, said Gary Hemphill, a spokesman for Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York City-based industry group.
"In the early 1990s the specialty beers, microbrews and beers from brew pubs were growing astronomically, because they were new and exciting at that time," Hemphill said. "But that seems to have tapered off, although some microbrews and regional specialties are still strong. There is still some growth there, but they are not driving the category.
"The specialty beers may have actually helped the imports, because they created a market for higher-end, European-style beers, and now for several years Corona and Heineken have led the market."
The total U.S. beer market has grown between 1% and 2% each year since 1995, reaching a total of 2,741 billion cases sold in the United States last year, according to Beverage Marketing.
Imported beers, on the other hand, grew 7.5% in 1995, which was their smallest increase in the past six years. In 1997 sales increased 14%; in 1998, 15%; and last year sales of imports grew 12.3% over the previous year to a total of 275 million cases.
Peter Dudis, director of grocery for Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., agreed that imports are the segment that is pushing the category.
"Imports grabbed an extra 5% of the total beer sales last year, and they are continuing to increase," Dudis said. "And Heineken is the biggest seller of the imports.
"We don't do any special promotions for summer, but each store devotes about 28 feet of cooler space to beer year-round," he added.
Beer sales in supermarkets have increased at rates higher than the rates for all channels combined. Supermarket beer sales grew from $5.6 billion in 1997 to $6.9 billion in 2001. This represents a 6.4% increase in sales for the 52-week period ended Jan. 27, 2001, compared with the previous year, and an increase of 22% for the four-year period. Light beers accounted for a large part of that increase, with sales growing by 9.2% for those 52 weeks and posting a nearly 33% increase for the four years, according to market researchers ACNielsen, based in Schaumburg, Ill.
In order to keep the beer sales growing, many supermarkets use special promotions year-round.
"We do specials 52 weeks a year," said Doug Murphy, director of grocery merchandising for Martin's Super Markets, which has 16 stores in the South Bend, Ind., area.
"Price points might become a little hotter during different holidays, but we do it all year, just changing the theme for the particular holiday. The amount of space devoted to beers in each store varies depending on the type of store it is. In a high-end store with more imports and microbrews, it takes more space."
The big summer promotion for Martin's stores is tied to the Nascar races in July, he said. In other areas, promotions are often more general and are geared to beach, pool and outdoor activities, according to the manufacturers.
But the type of promotion put into each supermarket can be geared for that special market, according to Devin Kelly, director of marketing for Canadian brands for Labatt USA in Norwalk, Conn.
"Labatt Blue has been growing at double digits for the past six years and last year grew at 40% plus," said Kelly. "We hope to crack into the Top 10 imports with Labatt Blue Light, and a big part of that growth is from partnering with supermarkets," he said. "More and more, the supermarket channel is looking at customized promotions. We want to bring something to their store that is unique."
Labatt's promotions this year will center on Labatt Blue Outfitters, marketers of high-quality outdoor gear and clothing. In winter, the promotions feature hockey themes.
"Large stores, such as Tops, with an abundance of aisle space, can get an island display for 1,000 cases," Kelly said. "For some, we build an entire patio deck in the store. For others we will use a high-end kayak to build a display. The point is, there is not one size that fits all. This allows the retailer to decide at the local level what is right for him. We have everything from the largest displays, to the banners and signage, to the beach towels and grills, always wrapped in the theme of Labatt Outfitters.
"We then use that to create specific displays, such as the red, white and blue for Memorial Day and July 4 holidays," Kelly added.
Promotions for Heineken and Corona have been paying off in recent years, making the two brands the top-selling imports.
Corona, as it has in the past, will focus on Cinquo de Mayo for its summer kickoff, with the promotions set to begin in early April, said Mike Hurt, a brand manager for Gambrinos distributors.
"Mexican brands are the ones on the map at that time of the year," Hurt said, "so we center everything on Cinquo de Mayo, from the largest displays down to the smallest door decals. This year for the first time we will have national television support for the campaign."
For the summer months, Corona will focus on getaway themes, with Passport to Paradise being the banner for the ads. And as always, Jimmy Buffet will be a featured celebrity in the advertisements.
"We'll emphasize beaches, water and escape -- the traditional summer themes," Hurt explained. "We encourage retailers to do price reductions and to include Corona in their fliers. It is a big item for retailers, with a nice profile and a good volume of sale."
Heineken, the other leading beer import in the country, is doing cross-promotions this year with Weber grills for both Heineken and Amstel. The U.S. PGA Open and regional golf tournaments will be a substantial theme for the brand, said Dan Tearno, a spokesman for the brand.
"We also anticipate the Heineken keg can, which has been a big seller for the last two years, to continue to be a popular item this summer. It increased in sales fivefold last summer, and we anticipate it will double again this year," he said. "Heineken sales were up 15% and Amstel up 13% last year, and it is still the fastest-growing segment, particularly for off-premises consumption."
Domestic beers are not going to be outdone for the summer beer season, and Coors has an instant-win promotion that will run through August, said Lori Varsames, Coors spokeswoman.
"Coors Light ATM Summer 2001" will start with "All the Millions" for the month of May. During that time, specially marked packages will have an ATM-type card that will enable the buyer to learn instantly if he or she has won up to $1 million in cash prizes.
"All the Miles" will continue through the July 4 period, when consumers can win travel vouchers or cash, and "All the Music" will be the theme for the rest of the summer, when Coors buyers will be able to win certificates for music CDs or cash, Varsames said.
"The theme bridges several holidays and selling periods and spans the whole time frame," she said. "We will provide support for retailers during the entire promotion."
Samuel Adams brewers in Boston is also using music as a theme for its summer promotion, with a World Class Summer Jam to be held in Boston Aug. 23-25, said Michelle Sullivan, spokeswoman for Boston Brewers and Samuel Adams beer.
Sam Adams Summer Jam parties will be staged in nine key market areas as part of the national brewery event. Consumers will have a chance to win fully catered summer parties or trips to the August Summer Jam in Boston.
Music will also be at the center of part of the summer promotions for Miller Genuine Draft. Consumers will have a chance to win trips by private jet to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Miller is also bringing back its popular promotion from last year known as "Get the Goods," said M. Eileen Wright, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee brewer.
"The promotion features a Memorial Day kickoff and July 4th refresher sales window, as well as cross-merchandising coupon opportunities for snack foods and party planning materials," Wright said. The promotion allows consumers to use cards in specially marked packages of Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft to enter a prize sweepstakes or to make purchases with "beer bucks" through a Web site.
Miller will also make donations to the United Cerebral Palsy Association; the U.S. Adelante Fund, which helps prepare Hispanic Americans to become business leaders; and the Thurgood Marshall Fund, which provides scholarships to students attending historically black public colleges and universities.
In addition to being supported by radio and television advertising, the promotion will be supported with point-of-sale materials, including instant-win scratch cards, and other display and contest enticements to help retailers maximize the category, she said.
All of the summer themes will be a prominent part of the alcoholic beverage aisles in many stores, including Food Lion, based in Salisbury, N.C.
"We lean more toward the domestic beers, with an average of 44 feet to 48 feet allotted to beer in the coolers and on the shelves," said Wendy Melton, spokeswoman, of Food Lion, which has 1,200 stores in 11 southern and eastern states. "We will have weekly specials to highlight them all summer long, and we're anticipating a good sales season."