Booze: the hard facts

(by peter)

An interesting new source of information about booze came my way recently, and I thought it was worth a comment.

I confess to being an avid booze watcher – it’s the direct result of a healthy journalistic interest, instilled MW rigour and ever-so-slightly geeky tendencies.

But all too often it’s very difficult to get hold of hard data when it comes to the slippery subject of drinks. Where it exists, it tends to be prohibitively expensive or difficult to access in full – as in the research commissioned on an individual basis by companies, but which is then either kept in-house or published on a selective basis.

Which is why my ears pricked up when I met Tim Wilson at a recent event at which we were both speaking in London.

Tim was presenting some fascinating research into attitudes and habits of drinkers from across the UK. I asked him to send across some more details about his research.

His is a new operation, entitled the Wilson Drinks Report (WDR). So far he has published three quarterly reports. These are available on a subscription basis as follows:

  • The standard (red) package, an annual subscription consisting of four quarterly hard-copy reports, in a pocket-sized format – £600 per year
  • The ‘premium’ (blue) package, an online version with WDR research updated monthly (also annual subscription) and with downloadable data features – £7,200 per year
  • The ‘confidential’ (green) package – essentially a bespoke service, enabling the subscriber to conduct customised research. This is charged on a flat rate per question.

While it’s true that these prices aren’t for the faint-hearted (especially the premium package), you can also pick up back copies for £50 each.

The reports are broken down into four main areas:

  • An executive summary (for those who don’t have the time or patience to trawl through the body of the report)
  • Special focus – some key issues of the day, eg the impact of the World Cup on drinks sales, or the topic of minimum pricing
  • Consumer research – asking consumers direct questions about drinks
  • Market data – collating and reporting the hard facts from a number of sources, including Nielsen, HMRC bond releases, CGA Strategy, International Wine & Spirits Report, BBPA Quarterly Beer Barometer

Tim sent through a copy of the May WDR issue – so slightly dated now. But it was enough to gain an insight into how good a source of information this is.

In summary, the WDR is a valuable and welcome addition to the limited range of drinks data providers. While it is far from cheap, it is eminently readable, handy in its pocket-sized format, and packed with the kind of data that all informed drinks professionals need.

Interesting facts, figures and trends that I picked out from an initial read included:

  • On ‘3 for £10’ wine discounts, the amount left after duty and VAT to pay for all the wine, packaging, shipment and margin costs is £1.15.
  • It is estimated that around 30% of people who buy wine do so purely from a gondola end or in a special promotional area, without ever visiting the wine aisle.
  • 22% of the British adult drinkers don’t drink wine at all.
  • The consumption of fortified and sweet wine is negligible, according to surveys asking people what they commonly drink.
  • 75-80% of total off-trade wine volumes in the UK is sold on promotion.
  • The most important consideration when buying wine in a shop for UK consumers is price (35%). This is almost double the number who said that brand was the most important factor (19%). Given that most of the wine sold at the UK is done on promotion, this suggests that British wine drinkers now expect a discount when it comes to buying wine.
  • While wine is the most popular alcoholic drink in the UK, it’s much more popular among women (for whom it is the favourite drink in 58% of cases) than it is among men (in only 26% of cases is it men’s favourite drink, versus 30% for beer).
  • The UK off-trade wine market is estimated by Nielsen at £6.2 bn (1.3 bn bottles); the on-trade UK wine market is estimated by CGA Strategy at around £3.6 bn (1.3 bn glasses of 175 ml for still wine and 125 ml for sparkling wine).
  • Between 2000 and 2009, beer has undergone a market decline (down 18%) while wine has risen overall (up 32%), albeit with a plateau since 2007.
  • Wine is increasingly, and predominantly, a drink purchased in the off-trade for consumption at home. When wine drinkers visit the on-trade, they often switch to beer (men) and spirits (women).
  • Between 2000 and 2009 in the UK, consumption of New World wines rose by 119%, while the Old World (ie Europe) fell back 8%. Within this period, sales of Australian wine rose by 83% while France declined by 31%.

The WDR doesn’t shy away from giving an opinion in places – for instance, opining that the only significant change in wine prices will come from initiatives by the big retailers rather than via legislation. In its well judged investigation into the contentious topic of the potential banning of below-cost alcohol selling, it recommends the best system of defining cost as ‘duty + a fixed price at £0.20 per unit of alcohol + VAT’, on the basis of sound reasoning.

Said reasoning was endorsed by two successive budgets, which the WDR more or less correctly predicted, including the VAT rise to 20% and the duty rise of 5% (in fact it was 5.1%).

The report is light on dry verbiage and cuts to the chase in its ‘So what?’ analysis.

That said, the report is not without its faults or shortcomings – as Wilson admits in his open request for suggested improvements.

As a relatively young publication, it sometimes lacks the depth of perspective that can come with longevity – a crucial value in this field. There’s also the sense that a bigger team – ie including legal and financial experts – would help bulk up the WDR’s credibility and breadth of scope.

The publication values in the May edition I saw were perfectly fine, but could have benefitted from more scrupulous sub-editing and more imaginative layout, graphics and design, especially given the cover price. On rare occasions, the writing style can also veer into slightly glib territory, or prove somewhat forced in its humour.

Such data are always inevitably limited by the oft-repeated truism that, when it comes to booze, what people say they do and what they actually do are two very different things. But this is not a criticism specific to the WDR: it’s simply a context of which any interpreter of such data must be aware.

One final piece of research worth commenting on was the author’s trip to a city hospital A&E department on a Bank Holiday Friday.

This evidence of a laudably proactive approach to providing research context highlighted several interesting issues, one of which was that the staff said there were no nationally consistent data collection requirements on alcohol-related admissions. (‘This does beg the question of how the nationally reported statistics are arrived at’, concludes Wilson.)

Finally, he notes how staff report on a common phenomenon whereby people who live near hospitals use ambulances as a de-facto taxi service: pretending to be drunk and injured, calling 999, hitching a lift to hospital and then disappearing…

Such eyebrow-raising information is common in the WDR.