­but independents have a chance to make the most of smaller multipacks and chiller displays now the multiples have cleared clutter from the fixture All the excitement in the beer fixture at Christmas is likely to be price driven. The multiples look set to be working themselves into a lather about who can offer the best price on key packs and brands. The majority of beers and lagers will be selling from a steady price platform because the fight will be over specific high profile skus which the retailers believe have capacity to draw extra consumers down their aisles. The brewers point out the battle is about big brands and big packs and the growth of both is undeniable. But underlying this is the price battle which has cut out the clutter of promotional offers, which often confused consumers who would have bought the products whether they featured a special onpack deal or not. So the multiples' beer aisle will have fewer surprises and will be easier to shop, but instore theatre will be difficult to create with the 24 and 36 pack slabs which will be the stars. This could give the independent and specialist the chance to make the most of the smaller multipacks ­ the eights, 10s, 12s and 18s ­ and chiller displays to create instore theatre, pull punters in and increase impulse sales. The latest ACNielsen figures show the off-trade beer market is just in volume growth, up 1%, fuelled by lager which is up 3%. Ale has declined 6%. The market growth is expected to continue in the run-up to Christmas and the brewers forecast volume sales up 3.2% on the same period in 2000. The stakes are high this season for off-trade beer sales. Last year, says ACNielsen, off-trade spending on beer in the two months leading up to Christmas increased by 25% to £476m and Bass is predicting this will go over £500m this year, so there is a lot to play for. Despite some gloom about the prospect of recession, there is room for optimism with the hope that the major retailers' focus will be spread over more than a couple of key brands, giving other players a chance for volume sales. A good performance in the summer, when take home sales grew by around 10%, may also help to take the pressure off. Steve Kitching, marketing director at Interbrew UK, says: "Retailers are competitive but some pressure has come out of the market place. "The millennium was tough but last Christmas was the most aggressive I've seen in 15 years. Maybe the trade won't put their feet on the gas if they believe consumers are still in the habit of buying, and the trend will roll forward." But Bass' sales director John Holberry is less optimistic: "In December retailers drop their pants on the price of beer and no one knows how to stop it happening. In fact, the independents hold their value better than the multiples, but there is a difference between consumer perception and reality. "They think the multiples are cheap for wines and spirits but they think beer is cheap everywhere, so people buy less beer from the multiples, even though the price is going down." But he is not downhearted about prospects arising from the country going into recession. "Our research shows that as unemployment goes up so does the sale of beer. As people become more affluent they spend their money on other things." The growing domination of multipacks will continue. In 1998 they had 44% of sales in the pre-Christmas period, in 1999 it was 52%, last year it had risen to 56% and this year Kitching estimates they will take 59%. "People don't want to run out at Christmas so they buy in bulk and through every trade channel and retailers trade up pack size to take account." Last year the big hit in convenience stores was the 10 pack of 330ml bottles, while the multiples majored on 24 packs of 330ml bottles, which also recognises the growing trend towards glass. Scottish Courage marketing director Brian Sharp says the biggest growth in terms of pack format has been in glass bottles, which have increased by 135% over the past six years to 26% of the total off-trade beer market. This in turn has led to a proliferation of skus, including the move to bigger bottles. Stella Artois is now available in 25cl, 33cl, 66cl and one litre bottles as well as 33cl, 44cl, 50cl and 568ml cans. Sharp adds: "Many retailers chose to concentrate on 24 packs last year to cater for bulk buyers, but there is an opportunity to promote smaller packs to appeal to shoppers who just buy at Christmas. "There was a missed opportunity with smaller packs last year. We believe this festive period could be good for these packs with a long weekend opportunity at both Christmas and New Year." Kitching says: "The effectiveness of occasion based packs is increasing. Stella is the number three grocery brand and part of its success is having packs which are relevant. "The emphasis in store will be on key promotional lines and cutting the clutter away to give more room for the big brands and the multipacks. But this raises the stakes because you have to make sure they are available throughout the trading period. "There has to be a lot of work and co-operation between manufacturers and the buying teams. There is a real challenge in getting the product through the supply chain network. "The space available to the category is not increasing but the way it is expected to sweat is. There is a lot of pressure to use the space more effectively." Geoff Bradman, sales director at Holsten UK, adds: "Early indications are that major retailers will look to reduce their reliance on one key brand, as was the situation last Christmas, and will spread their offer across a wider spectrum of lines. Then consumers will see greater competition, providing an opportunity for a range of brands, including Holsten Pils, to play a role." Inevitably Holsten has reacted to the continuing consumer demand for the value for money which comes with multipacks and is making its 24 pack of 330ml bottles of Holsten available throughout the trade, after trials with Sainsbury in the summer. Alongside this it will be promoting smaller packs to encourage trial. Bradman says: "While the emphasis has switched from stubby packs to larger sizes in the major grocers, there will be an opportunity for this format in independents." Interbrew's Kitching emphasises: "The retailers will measure the success of Christmas on the share they take in the market place. "That will create a competitive Christmas, but the real success will be measured on how well all the plans of the players are executed." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}