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Lifting Adult Beverage Sales This Holiday Season

Grocers can make their alcohol departments a destination with the variety of products that shoppers seek
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Lifting Adult Beverage Sales This Holiday Season
As people gather in groups and seek to make up for lost time, grocers that sell adult beverages are well positioned to merchandise a variety of wine, beer and spirits products.

Is the glass half empty or half full for adult beverages as the year winds down?

Supply chain disruptions and inflation may be causing consternation about potential shortages in wines and liquor, and higher price points during a pivotal high-volume time. If grocers look at market data for the past several months and take into account consumer mindsets and preferences, however, they can mine opportunities to lift adult beverage sales and tap into new avenues for growth for years to come.

The overall category is holding its own. Although it’s tough to match the spikes in alcoholic beverages that happened in 2020, research from alcoholic beverage trend forecaster IWSR shows that year-to-date performance in 2021 is still higher than in pre-pandemic 2019. The firm estimates that the category is poised for 3.8% additional growth in volume and a 5.5% rise in value. As retailers pursue such growth, they can keep in mind what shoppers are looking for in adult drinks, especially when they’re entertaining.

Bud Light Seltzer's limited-edition Ugly Sweater Pack is coming to town for the holiday season, with three new festive flavors.

A Cup of Cheer

The last quarter of the year has traditionally been a strong one for adult beverages. According to a pre-pandemic study from Morning Recovery, average Americans boost their alcohol habits by 100% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

The winter holidays are a perennial catalyst for those strong sales. With ongoing restrictions and a pandemic wave across much of the country, last year’s holidays were muted, with fewer in-person celebrations.

While the current situation isn’t quite one of pre-pandemic normalcy, a more festive season is ahead: the National Retail Federation reports that 90% of U.S. adults plan to celebrate the upcoming holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, up from 87% last year.

Christmas and Thanksgiving are the most commonly shared holidays: Findings from market research firm Mintel show that 93% of consumers celebrate either occasion.

As an overwhelming majority of people mark some winter festival, they have a different attitude in 2021. The data arm of delivery service (and recent Uber acquisition) Drizly has found that fewer than half (42%) of consumers expect to celebrate the holidays the same way that they did last year. In a new report on U.S. holidays and traditions, Mintel notes that most adults are “optimistic” that their fall and winter holidays will be more normal this year. 

As people gather in groups and seek to make up for lost time, grocers that sell adult beverages are well positioned to merchandise a variety of wine, beer and spirits products, including larger bottles and multipacks used for parties and purchased as gifts for hosts and friends or family members. In addition to pumping up the volume for entertaining, grocery shoppers can embark on an in-store or digital discovery of interesting new adult beverage products for their winter holiday celebrations and as potential gifts for those on their list.

a glass of orange juice next to a cup of coffee
The Bartesian cocktail machine mixes up adult beverage favorites with the touch of a button.

Get Ready

The ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail segment, for example, shows no sign of slowing down. RTD adult beverages appeal to holiday revelers for the novelty factor and to holiday hosts because such items cut down on preparation time at parties.

Several RTD beverages for the over-21 crowd have hit the market lately and show promise for the holidays, such as the Luxardo Gin & Tonic canned drink, and a line of canned Colony Cocktails in varieties like the Charleston, the Tangier and the Biarritz.

Also in the RTD arena, canned seltzers aren’t just for summertime. Despite the warm-weather appeal of fruit-flavored seltzers, some varieties go well with winter occasions, too, like White Claw’s new Surge cranberry hard seltzer that contains 8% alcohol by volume.

Also in canned seltzers, Bud Light Seltzer is out with its Ugly Sweater Pack for 2021, following last year’s debut of that line. The brand has brought back Cranberry, but added three new flavors this year: Cherry Cordial, Seltzer Nog and Sugar Plum.

Seasonal varieties have also become a hallmark of the craft beer market, as people get ready to crack open cold ones at gatherings. Coming out of an autumn season ripe with apple and pumpkin flavors, beer companies are rolling out holiday collections spotlighting spiced flavors like gingerbread and nutmeg, and using heartier stouts, porters and ales. Shiner, the Texas-based maker of Shiner Bock, has even teamed up with Collin Street Bakery to brew up a Fruitcake Pastry Porter inspired by the baker’s famous fruitcake.

Brewers’ knack for creativity is evident in some of this year’s offerings for entertaining and gift exchanges. The Almanac Beer Co. in California has introduced a Holiday Advent Beer Box, with a dozen 6-ounce cans, available in three configurations: an “all fresh beer” box with IPAs, lagers and stouts; a “sour” box with barrel-aged sour beers; and a combo pack with both fresh and barrel-aged beers.

Advent calendars are becoming a thing in the wine category as well. Discount grocer Aldi has an enthusiastic fan base for its annual wine advent calendar, available starting the third Wednesday in November. The 2021 Wine Advent Calendar from Aldi sells for $59.99 and contains 24 “doors” with a small bottle of red, white or bubbly behind one. The item typically sells out fast.

a close up of a bottle
As the ranks of the "sober curious" and occasional teetotalers rise, products like the nonalcoholic Mingle Mocktails can be served up at inclusive holiday celebrations.

What’s the Buzz?

Other new or unique offerings can lend a fresh, festive dynamic to retailers’ adult beverage sections during a period of peak entertaining.

In a marketplace awash with health-and-wellness products in the wake of a global health crisis, the adult beverage category now includes an array of better-for-you drinks that can be a part of holiday blasts and repasts. For instance, agave spirits are performing well, up 15.9% in volume last year, according to IWSR.

Some startup and niche brands are getting noticed for their products that have a certain health halo. The mixer brand Avec, for instance, offers products made with all-natural real juices and botanicals, canned and ready to be blended with spirits.

Another trend largely centered on holistic wellness is influencing the adult beverage category as well: the rise of mocktails and nonalcoholic beverages for teetotalers or the “sober curious.”
A new analysis of Nielsen data conducted by Goldman Sachs Equity Research has found that sales of nonalcoholic drinks rose 12.9% for the two-week period ending Oct. 9, and dollar sales climbed 22.6% on a two-year stacked basis.

Because mocktails and alcohol-free products are typically sold in the same department as adult beverages, grocers can keep an eye on trends and new product offerings that appeal to those exploring a sober lifestyle. Many inventive products have entered this space, like a line of RTD Mingle Mocktails, available in Cranberry Cosmo, Blackberry Hibiscus Bellini, Cucumber Melon Mojito, Moscow Mule and Blood Orange Elderflower Mimosa varieties. Recently, KeHE Distributors picked up Mingle Mocktails for distribution in California, Illinois, Indiana and Texas, bringing the number of stores that carry the items close to 2,000. 

“As a brand founded on inclusivity, we see Mingle being sold and served everywhere that alcohol is sold and served, so everyone feels part of the party,” explains founder and CEO Laura Taylor.

A product called Jeng is another nonalcoholic beverage that can be an option for shoppers. A hemp-infused RTD cocktail that contains 11 milligrams of CBD, Jeng is available in flavors that replicate traditional cocktails, including a Moscow mule, gin and tonic, and paloma.

Also mixing it up in the adult beverage category is the introduction of home bartending appliances that make entertaining easier and fun. Available at Target, Macy’s and the culinary specialty store Williams-Sonoma, Bartesian is an at-home on-demand cocktail machine that makes “lounge-quality” drinks, using cocktail capsules filled with mixers, extracts and juices that can be paired with any vodka, whiskey, gin, rum or tequila.

“Bartesian delivers all the benefits of a fully stocked bar in one sleek and compact machine,” says Ryan Close, founder and CEO. “Retailers should absolutely consider adding Bartesian to their adult beverage/spirits section as a unique and exciting offering for their customers. We’ve seen enormous growth via both our brick-and-mortar retailer partners as well as via our e-commerce channels.”

Merry Merchandising

If new products help grocers widen their appeal to a diverse shopper base, retailers are also broadening their efforts to connect with customers who are ready to entertain with alcoholic beverages.

Curbside pickup and home delivery are one way to meet the needs of shoppers who have become accustomed to such conveniences. Grocers competing with delivery services like DoorDash and Drizly can offer pickup and delivery options to adult beverage shoppers, especially during the holiday season, when celebrations are peaking and time is at a premium.

Some grocers are going especially big with adult beverages. Midwestern grocer Hy-Vee, for instance, has opened a new Wall to Wall Wine and Spirits store that’s pretty much turnkey for entertaining. The store sells wine, spirits and craft beer, along with grocery items that pair well with adult drinks, and a selection of barware. 

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