As the major multiples continue to crash the price of beer brands, the government has given its strongest warning yet that its war on binge drinking could hit supermarket shelves. Speaking at the Home Office on Monday junior minister Hazel Blears said instore price promotions and deep discounting could be outlawed if they were seen to encourage excessive alcohol consumption.
Alcohol suppliers and retailers would be encouraged to sign up to a voluntary code and make financial contributions under plans to be considered early next parliament, said Blears.
But if the government believes retailers are marketing alcohol irresponsibly instore they could be subject to regulation, she added. “We are trying to send out a strong message that we are not going to tolerate irresponsible drinking or irresponsible selling - that includes the on-trade and off-trade.”
Regulation will be considered where promotions are irresponsible, not promotions per se, Blears said, citing two for one offers which she believed were among those that encouraged excess consumption.
However, targeting supermarkets alongside licensed premises in these plans is seen as unjustified by industry figures.
British Retail Consortium director of communications David Southwell points out that supermarkets satisfy a different demand to licensed pubs, bars or clubs and, to an extent, to off-licences and tend to be removed from the drinkers out on the streets of a town centre.
While binge drinking should be addressed, regulating or indeed banning drinks promotions in supermarkets would have no impact on the problem, he adds.
“This is totally unnecessary and uncalled for - there is no evidence to relate this to supermarket sales. The major retailers are already fully behind responsible selling.
“It is not a factor - it would have zero impact on the problem of binge drinking.”
Southwell said the argument that stores were, in part, responsible for excessive drinking was often put forward by those
who were anti-competitive. “It is a competitive area - that is the nature of the market. But supermarkets are not where to look if you are trying to resolve the issue - the characters of the on-trade and the off-trade are radically different.
“It is misguided to try to link the problems of binge drinking with off-trade sales.”
He added: “It is trying to introduce measures to determine price and link that with social problems - if that is where we are going I do not think there will be widespread support.”
Suppliers have also been considered in Blears’ plans and she believes regulating promotions could improve their profit margins by lessening the tough competition.
“Suppliers do not want to do this [offer cut-price drinks or promotions] but feel they have to otherwise they would be undercut by the people down the road.”
But Quentin Rappoport, director of the Wine and Spirits Association, says most suppliers would not welcome a policy of regulation. Although upping prices might be considered beneficial by a few, limiting competition would have a generally negative effect, he said.
“Promotions are used on new products to make customers aware of them. If you cannot do that, people who are established feel less threatened and you get a price ring.”
He adds: “I cannot see that regulating supermarket promotions has anything to do with binge drinking. In the off-trade you buy alcohol and take it home.”