A-B: Consolidation Must Happen


Dear Client:

It was a sea of casual denim at A-B's Wholesaler Excellence Meeting in New Orleans earlier this week, as your editor slouched in the back under a Doc Otis hat and Bud Ice hoodie. Quite a change from the dark suits of years past.

North American chief Luiz Edmond kicked off the meeting and dove right into the subject that's on folks' minds: alignment and anchor wholesalers. (Although he started with a quip: "How do you like my haircut? It's not cheap, it's frugal. It helps me be on time.")

"Alignment for sure will pay back to you and us," said Luiz. "We believe consolidation will and must happen.....we want, expect and encourage anchor wholesalers to play a large role in consolidation, expanding their businesses in adjoining territories, or new locations when opportunities arise." He said that some people may ask, if I sell 99% A-B products, can I still be an anchor wholesaler? "There's no easy answer.... If you're heading in the right direction, that's important to us." In other words, there are no hard and fast rules. What is not acceptable, said Luiz, is swapping out A-B products on the shelves and on tap handles with competitive brands, and "selling brands in other wholesalers' territory," echoing what A-B stressed in Dallas. "We cannot pretend that we like it."

TOUGH YEAR. "2011 was a tough year," acknowledged sales vp Dave Almeida, who got a lot of stage time this year. He showed that A-B lost 0.6 share points in Beer Institute reported data, , although price-to-retail was up. Dave showed that the industry has lost 10 million barrels since 2008 in BI data. While the industry has typically blamed unemployment and lower disposable income for the sluggishness, Dave said that it's not just employment, but low "labor participation rates." People have given up looking for jobs." The good news is that all of those metrics are improving, and it's "no coincidence that our industry is improving since November."

So what is eating at A-B's share. Dave was candid about this. He said it's a combination of factors.

1. They "didn't react fast enough" to MillerCoors offering specific new packages that they've backed into price points. A-B will now be offering these packs, big time. Dave says that when distributors have bought into the program - even though the margins are lower - the distributor and retailer ends up making more money overall.

2. "Craft is a real threat, but it's also an opportunity." Echoing Ed McBrien's speech last week at the Summit, Dave showed research that indicated that retailers that have too many SKUs actually end up selling less overall beer. He used the example of the health and beauty aids aisle in a supermarket, where consumers spend an average of 90 seconds and only buy something 25% of the time, whereas people spend 31 seconds in the beer aisle and buy something 75% of the time. "Retailers that are winning are not invested in craft to the detriment to the category," said Dave. Later Dave and his national accounts team walked me through a deck showing that chains that over-SKU with crafts end up selling less beer and making less profit than chains that protect their domestic premium space. More on that later.

3. High end price compression. Dave showed a slide that indicated that high end beer isn't raising pricing as fast as premium beer. One slide showed that the average difference between a 12 pack of Bud Light and Heineken had been cut in half since 2009.

4. Competition from various brewers like Yuengling (which he called "value craft") Mike's, and Pabst.

But Dave said that since January, things were looking much better for A-B in IRI data. The launch of Platinum helped that, but also Bud Light is improving its IRI trend as well. Their Mission Six portfolio grew 32% in January in IRI, gaining 1.6 share points of the high-end segment, closing in on 10% share in the high end.

And Bud Light Platinum is exceeding expectations. Platinum's trial is twice that of Bud Light Lime at this point in the introduction. Repeat buys are about the same, and 95% of respondents like it after the first trial, and 84% said they were likely to buy it again. All respondents said it was as good as or better than expected and 58% said it was better than expected.


CONSUMERS SLOW DOWN SPENDING. Research from Consumer Edge Insights is showing a fairly sharp slowdown in consumer spending over the past few weeks. Compared with other months February only saw a 0.4% gain in discretionary spending over the prior year, while December rose 2.3% and January rose 1.3%. The main cause for this slowdown seems to be uncertainly about household income and fear the job market is losing steam, reports CNBC. Also, higher gas prices have got to be causing people to pause.

CORRECTION: WHO THE HECK IS PABLO FERNANDEZ? I know. An editing mishap lead to me somehow overlooking the fact that the chairman of Modelo is Carlos Fernandez, somebody I have known and respected for years. My apologies for the mistake.

BEER SUMMIT pictures are up on Facebook. Check them out here: http://tinyurl.com/82ufvpj

Until tomorrow, Harry

"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." - M. Scott Peck

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