Retailers are crying foul at drinks scrutiny, says Rosie Davenport

Awar is brewing in the drinks industry with different factions gearing up for a bout of mud slinging over their possible contribution to binge drinking.

Pubs have already taken a lot of flak - in the wider media at least - and the government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, published this week, has made it clear that time needs to be called on irresponsible happy hours. However, it’s not only pub promotions that are on the government’s radar screen.

“You can’t separate the on and off trades, especially when the supermarkets are such a big sector,” warns a strategy unit spokesman. “Price isn’t really the issue - promoting responsibly is. Ministers are watching the industry closely.”

News that the off-trade has been brought into the line of inspection will certainly appease publicans who have long claimed that retailers’ promotions should come under the same scrutiny.

But some of grocery’s powerhouses are keen to deny any parallels that might exist between the on and off-trades.

“A promotion that runs over three weeks is different to a happy hour that lasts for one or two hours,” says David Croft, head of the Co-operative Group’s technical division.

And Helen McGinn, product development manager at Tesco, which is planning a raft of activity to better educate consumers about alcohol, agrees. “The greatest area of concern is on the on trade and the drink-as-much-as-you-can mechanics. We want to give customers the best value we can and don’t want to compromise on that. We do not believe that what we are doing is, in any way, exacerbating the problem.”

The role of discounting in maintaining a competitive edge is keenly felt at Bargain Booze, where it’s clear, right down to the name, what’s on offer.

Cynics might say it therefore makes commercial sense for MD Matthew Hughes to criticise any attempt to curb price cutting.

“Responsibility is particularly important for a company like ours, which is clearly a
discount proposition, but I am fully against a clamp down on discounting - it’s not the root of all evil.”

On the other side of the coin, David Williams, chief executive of the Thresher Group, has made no secret of his anger at the “supermarkets’ anti-competitive” stance on price and the furore surrounding binge drinking could win him wider support.

“It’s one thing for the supermarkets to treat sugar or bread as a loss leader, but selling trolley-loads of cheap alcohol has more dangerous consequences for society. Excessive boozing by over-18s is encouraged by unsustainable promotions,” he says.

And he’s not alone in thinking discounting in the off-trade should be investigated. Jean Coussins, chief executive of the drinks industry watchdog, the Portman Group, says: “The OFT must pronounce on discount offers and decide the difference between competition and responsibility. The off-trade is not in a different camp.”

She adds that the industry needs to get its house in order to stave off legislation.

A government insider has hinted that the off-trade could face severe consequences if it’s not more critical of some of the wider implications of its trading style. “Their actions are shameless. It’s true people don’t get drunk in supermarkets but they get drunk on the stuff they buy there.”