Monday 21 November 2011

Last of the independents

Go in a typical major supermarket, and you will find a range of beers that would not have disgraced a cutting-edge independent off-licence fifteen years ago. A huge spread of British independent and micro brewers, German and Czech pilsners, Belgian specialities, American craft beers. That’s an amazing transformation from the time when all you’d get is cans of McEwan’s Export and Carling Black Label.

But that spells bad news for independent off licences, who increasingly see the supermarkets encroaching on their territory. The growth in the appreciation of beer has led to a huge rise in beer-focused pubs, but the specialist off licences have at best trod water. The big difference is that, when you go out for a drink, you are specifically looking for a drinking venue, but when shopping for beer most people tend to combine it with shopping for all the rest of the range of household essentials.

Clearly the primary aim of Tesco et al is to make money, but at the end of the day you will only make money by satisfying consumer demand. They know that alcoholic drinks are probably the biggest single category in the typical grocery spend and, if they fail to offer a decent selection of beer, their customers will take their business elsewhere. The supermarket beer range may not be quite the best in the world, but for most customers it’s good enough to ensure they don’t bother making a pilgrimage to the specialist.

All too often that leaves the independents scrabbling for the last 1% of trade amongst the people for whom “you can get it in Tesco” is a major reason for not drinking a beer. Those obscurantist beer geeks will always be there, but they’re not the foundation on which you can build a growing business.

I call in at my most local specialist – the Bottle Stop in Bramhall – about once a month, and pick up a few bottles. But that’s only because I’m passing it, and otherwise I wouldn’t be too unhappy to exist on a diet of what Tesco and Morrisons sell.


  1. The market for the specialist off licence seems to be narrowing to wine and beer geeks, but the number of wine and beer geeks appears to be increasing. The market for such establishments was always greater than grog enthusiasts encompassing the affluent curious and returned traveller.

    Many global beers are of no interest to the beardy types but the gentleman returned from a work placement in Australia may hanker after a VB, as a gentlemen returning from Bavaria may wonder where in Blighty he can get Weissbier. In the 70’s Alan Whicker was an exotic fellow with his travels. Foreign travel is now far more democratised and awareness of the delights of faraway places greater. Thus Tesco stock VB & 3 different types of Weissbier.

    So long as the world is exotic enough to create niches, the specialist will prosper. But I hope it doesn’t. I like travel, I like that it is more affordable. I like finding a Starbucks and using the free Wi-Fi. I like the cultural understanding and appreciation it creates, even if the world think the British are yobbish drunks. I like to show them we are civilised drunks. I would actually make the outrageously pretentious statement that it contributes to peace and prosperity through mutual understanding.

    If that means Tesco sell me formerly exotic grog but now common, all to the good.

  2. The supermarket beer aisle has been a good eye opener for me. I try different bottles when on 'offers'. I notice that when S'burys has an offer on one type of beer so do M'sons. Both stop at the same time. I used to be able to trawl the supermarkets and buy from the cheapest, but now they all are the same.
    That's not a choice for me. That is copycat supermarket marketing.

  3. One of our independents in Southport, the Inn Beer Shop on Lord Street, seems to do good business. Although its main trade is off sales, it has drinking areas inside the shop and on the pavement in front, where you can drink the beers. Perhaps that's a way forward.

  4. Spot on Mudge. We were so glad when the Sainsbury's down the road re-opened with a rubbish beer range. We however, are one of the lucky ones, and who knows how long it will last...

  5. Some in the right location seem to do OK, but it's undoubtedly true that the rise in beer appreciation hasn't led to a similar rise in the fortunes of independent specialist off-licences.

  6. I'd take part in your poll but we don't have a sepcialist off licence within 25 miles. So Sainsbury's etc. it is.

  7. Yes, maybe "I don't have one anywhere near me" should have been an additional option. I would have thought Allerton/Woolton or the more prosperous parts of the Wirral might support one, but obviously not.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. Unregistered comments will generally be rejected unless I recognise the author. If you want to comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.