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Are we still Boozy Brits? A look at changes to our drinking habits.25th March 2021
by Amity Watts.
I’m obsessed with the topic of habits. I’m currently reading ‘Atomic habits’ by James Clear and examining my various lifestyle habits and how they impact different areas of my life. Our personal habits are usually mirrors of our cultural, ‘group’ habits and it’s fascinating to consider how the lockdown and its associated behaviours have caused huge and fast changes in consumer habits recently. The drinks industry has attracted a lot of media attention in the last year mainly due to the incredible sales figures reported by the supermarkets, and it’s an area worth digging into to consider where personal and consumer habits collide and reflect changes in society on a wider level.
Alcohol is a fascinating category. There is not an adult in my life that does not have something to say about their drinking habits. I can be sitting in a room of people of all ages, backgrounds, occupations and attitudes and guarantee they will all have something to say about this category. 2020 was a skewed year for retail statistics, as the dramatic shift in consumer behaviour caused by the pandemic and lockdowns saw an additional £2.5bn spent on BWS in supermarkets (and obviously not in the hospitality sector). It’s easy to allow pandemic statistics to lead us to certain conclusions but UK drinking habits have been changing for a while now, especially in certain age groups and it’s definitely not all about beer and wine any more.
There’s plenty of reasons why we drink. Historically alcohol is woven into the national identity; drinking underpins every happy and sad occasion of our lives. New home? Have some champagne! New baby? Have some more champagne! Good week at work? Open the wine! Bad day at work? Have a gin! It’s easier in our culture to drink than it is to not drink. Today’s 40-somethings have grown up with alcohol advertising and sponsorship as the norm and it’s an inescapable part of our lives. As this Telegraph article about men’s drinking says “If anything, it’s less of a coping mechanism, more a default setting.” On an average night out, a non-drinker will have to spend a substantial amount of time explaining why they’re not drinking (or making something up to fend off the questions), which is weird really. I saw a funny TikTok video the other day where the creator was comparing giving up mayonnaise to giving up alcohol. She said alcohol is the only consumer good where people think it’s OK to question why you’ve stopped consuming it; imagine being asked ten times on one day why you don’t eat mayonnaise anymore? “Did you over-do it with the mayonnaise, are you really never touching it again, can you imagine Christmas without mayonnaise, do you have a problem with mayonnaise?!” are all questions you would not be asked!
Reasons for the changes in alcohol consumption over the last thirty years are plentiful and sit largely with the power of marketing and government legislation, but heavily influenced by recessions, the change in women’s societal roles, and a general increase in disposable income. This fascinating article outlines trends in British drinking over the last century, and media coverage of the last year would have us believe that despite falling alcohol sales since we hit ‘Peak Booze’ of 2004 (I was 22 years old that year and 100% participating in the national drinkathon), we can still identify with our ‘Boozy Brits’ moniker. In 2019 we ‘spent more on alcohol, tobacco, chocolate and crisps, than bread, yoghurt and fruit juice’. It’s a testament to the hold it has over us that Dry January is seen as a major achievement, and the lockdown announcement of 4th January saw millions of Dry Jan attempts abandoned immediately in favour of drinking to numb the pain of what we all knew was coming, with sales of alcohol surging 30% in this month alone.
Obviously the closure of hospitality over the last year has meant home is the only place we can drink, but before the pandemic it’s interesting to note the rise of home drinking as a trend by itself. We have been drinking more at home since the late nineties and the wine category is a key driver of this, focussing its marketing efforts on women who were traditionally less likely to go to ‘the pub’ (because for years they weren’t welcome there, or they’re more likely to be at home due to their child-caring responsibilities) and diversifying into more ‘female friendly’ categories like pink wine and prosecco. It’s incredibly annoying as a woman to know we are more likely to buy something because it’s pink, but we absolutely are! Hence the rise of pink ciders, pink beers, pink gin and even pink whiskey. The alcohol industry identified women as a key growth customer, and ladies we fell for it! (‘hate the game, not the player’ is a phrase I like to deploy when thinking about this). It’s not just the girls though, the rise of ‘sofa drinking’ in men is thought to be behind recent statistics that say both genders in the UK are now the heaviest drinkers in Europe.
Looking along the supermarket BWS aisles the choice is astounding compared to a decade ago. I’ve mentioned the explosion of the pink bottles, but there’s also the re-brand of gin from ‘mother’s ruin’ to almost everyone’s favourite tipple (the gin and cocktail boom drove spirits sales up in 2019 up £175m), the ‘Beckham-isation’ of whiskey (whiskey used to be so niche didn’t it?!), and then see how culinary trends such as foraging and experimental chemistry also seep into our alcohol consumption with the explosion of ‘mixology’ cocktails. The lockdown has accelerated a recent trend for buying from local businesses rather than relying on big corporates, so craft beers and micro-breweries are on the increase. Pre-mixed is another popular category now, becoming the norm on train journeys and at music festivals over the last few years. So beer and wine sales aren’t the biggest story in the alcohol category any more, but sub-categories such as organic wine are expected to boost sales, the UK being one of the leading organic wine markets.
The pandemic has disrupted the alcohol industry and it will take some years to recover any sense of ‘normality’ in worldwide sales. Looking back to the years leading up to 2020 though, we can see some shifts in consumer behaviour that were already sowing the seeds of change for the industry. Despite the rise of home-drinking in 2020 and an explosion in the home-delivery category, alcohol sales as a whole were down last year. As this article highlights, “When you look at the full data…twice as many of us are drinking less than drinking more, which is borne out by figures for total alcohol sales.”
I found it hard to get anecdotal evidence to support this – most adults I know have drunk more in lockdown than they ever have, and it’s a consistent topic of conversation when I speak to friends, many saying drinking has become a daily habit. Maybe that’s the story of the worlds I inhabit though (recruitment, marketing, hospitality; all stereotypically heavy drinking career paths!). Seven conducted a LinkedIn poll in March 2021 asking our network about their drinking habits throughout lockdown and I was surprised to see 44% of respondents reporting their drinking has decreased over the last year, compared to 32% saying they drink more, and 24% reporting no change. These results are backed up by sales figures from the ‘NoLo’ drinks category; according to data collected before Christmas, “almost half of 18- to 34-year-olds planning to serve low- and no-alcohol drinks with the Christmas turkey, according to research by Tesco”.* This article highlights the term ‘moderate majority’ which seems to be quite an accurate term looking at sales figures across all beverages; although at odds with the media portrayal of British people!
The ‘NoLo’ category saw a 30% jump in sales following the first lockdown in March 2020; we can assume consumers were perhaps self-moderating their drinking and looking for variety in their drinking habits as the hospitality sector was shut down. Innovation in the sector from brands such as CleanCo, Ghost Ship, Xachoh, Seedlip to name a few has been nudging sales of this category up for the last few years. Ultimately innovation is driven by consumer behaviour and trends, and the under 30’s are just not drinking as heavily as the over 45’s. Sobriety as a trend has seen huge growth over the last few years with books on the theme taking up a big part of the ‘wellbeing’ shelves in online bookshops (and real ones, from April 12th). We can assume as we emerge from our pandemic mind-set that wellbeing and health will continue to be a focus for many of us and this will translate into our behaviour as consumers.
There are over 40 million working-age adults in the UK, so making generalisations isn’t necessarily helpful. Recent statistics show we are attempting to take better care of ourselves, and our drinking habits are part of that effort. We’ve had a year of reduced celebrations and gatherings, and the pubs will be open again soon, so there will be more to say at the end of 2021 about whether ‘NoLo’ sales can withstand our stampede back to restaurants, parties and festivals. Can our new, health-focussed habits survive with the return of drinks after work and nights on the town? Like a lot of things this year – we shall see!