analysis by Tim Palmer Seismic shifts in the drinks market mean that suppliers and retailers will to have to be on the ball if they are going to keep up with consumer trends and capitalise on emerging opportunities. Judging where these trends are is going to get tougher. On the one hand there is clear evidence that consumers are looking for the reassurance of the big brand comfort zone, particularly as they are being urged to commit more cash as they trade up to bigger packs. On the other, shoppers are becoming more fickle. The highly public retailer price wars have led them to expect, and actively look for, the best deals. And they are not only buying from one product sector. The typical beer drinker has no problem switching from a favourite branded premium lager to an unknown cheap stubby from Calais, an upmarket alcopop, a £5 bottle of New World wine or a cocktail. Consumers are repertoire drinkers. Suppliers are recognising their drinks have to be tailored to specific occasions or times of day and to individual age groups. So a few favourite premium ales or a glass of wine in front of the telly will make way for an uplifting premium packaged spirit prior to going out where the drink of choice will change again to lager, sparkling or still wine, spirits, cocktails and chasers. An additional factor to key into this is that it is not men who are making all the running. They are the big ale and lager drinkers, but the fastest growth in the market is coming from premium packaged spirits and wine, both of which have a female bias. The pps sector has identified a market for sweeter, more approachable alcoholic drinks which are easier to consume than beer and have more appeal to younger drinkers than spirits. The younger drinkers are critical. They are disloyal with few ties to specific brands. But they have large disposable incomes and drink in volume. The speed with which trends change can be gauged by the fact that one supplier has already identified that the demand for alcoholic stimulation drinks, which began with the fashion for mixing Red Bull with vodka, is already on the wane in London. In its place is coming a renewed interest in simple stylish cocktails. However, the sector has gained momentum of its own. The latest Nielsen figures put its annual volume growth at 66% with the market led by Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer and WKD. Sales of Hooch, the original alcopop, are now calculated as part of this sector and its lemon variant is the fourth best seller in the category. The issue for the trade is that premium packaged spirits' share of mouth' ­ or as one senior figure in the trade put it, share of liver' ­ is increasing at the expense of other sectors. Scottish Courage managing director Robin Alexander says: "Spirit mixed drinks and wine posed a real threat last year and there is no reason to suspect that these areas won't pose an equivalent threat this year, largely because consumers are broadening their repertoires." But this is only part of the problem for the brewers. They were given the millennium uplift they expected, the challenge is repeating it this year. This means matching the exceptional 12% growth, when the market has only been achieving 4% for the past few years. Against some expectations, the beer market has continued to be buoyant. Bass reports the sector continues performing 10% ahead of last year. There are hopes the 2000 end-of-year party could be almost as good as 1999. But while volume figures might rise, it is the value figures that are causing concern. Alexander says: "Despite price and duty increases we have seen little real inflation in the take home beer market since 1996. "Standard ale was £2.06 a litre in 1996 and £1.85 last year. Standard lager was £1.47 in '96 and £1.44 last year. The only movement we have seen is equivalent to 7p a litre in premium lager and 10p in stubbies because of the change in mix from products such as Bier d'Or into brands such as Kronenbourg 1664." The forces behind this are the multiple grocers which have a 67% share of the market. They have kept a firm lid on prices as they strive for market share. They have been contending with the threat of the OFT inquiry and the arrival of the massive buying power of Wal-Mart. Cut-throat pricing, particularly on multipacks, pushed their off-trade share up 18% last winter and there is every sign this will happen again. The suppliers recognise this is not in the best interests of their brands or sector, but maintain there is little they can do if retailers choose to fund the cuts. This situation is hitting the wholesalers and independents hard. Independents' share of total beer fell to a record low of 15.7% last year. Some of this could be down to more planned purchasing by consumers in the multiples ahead of the millennium, but pricing was critical. The wholesale trade is already lobbying suppliers for a more level playing field. It maintains it is going to need sector specific deals on different pack sizes if it is going to compete and sell enough beer to make it worth doing. The wine business continues to sail on the crest of a wave. Sparkling wines went through the roof last year and although they are unlikely to do so again this year more people will have been introduced to both champagne and sparkling wines and will continue to drink them. Sales of still wine have been growing at 6% this year and stand a better than even chance of beating last year's figures this Christmas. Like beer, growth has been fuelled by the big brands, but in marked contrast the fastest growth is coming from the higher price points over £5. To keep the momentum going the big brands ­ Gallo, Jacob's Creek, Hardy ­ are committed to multimillion pound advertising budgets. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}