Beer category is land of opportunities

06 April, 2007

Christine Boggis meets Chris Craig, Sainsbury's new beer buyer

Sainsbury's new beer buyer Chris Craig joined the supermarket less than a year ago, from selling nappies and toilet paper for Kimberley Clark. In December, just three months after moving into buying ales, stouts and cider, he moved into the hot seat heading up the beer buying department.

This month he has completed a range review, giving more space to cider and finding new ways to promote premium bottled ales, world beers and speciality beers.

"Beer is a really exciting category to work on," he sa ys. "There is a fair bit of complexity, enormous turnover, lots of opportunities to grow in certain segments of the category.

"My biggest disappointment since coming into the category is that I've not seen any true innovation, as opposed to new product development. That is a shame and it is something the category needs if it is going to continue to step on and grow further."

New packaging, new flavours and beers designed for different drinking occasions, such as Greene King's Beer To Dine For, are interesting developments, but not the "truly revolutionary" innovation Craig is seeking.

He says: "There is plenty of ongoing new stuff, but there is nothing I would say is groundbreaking. The best thing is probably premium bottled ale and, to an extent, cider served over ice. It has certainly catapulted the category, and it is really just about taking exactly the same product and encouraging people to drink it in a different way.

"Revolutionary, groundbreaking things that push category into double-digit growth can be very simple. You just need some great ideas."

Don't look at deep discounts out of context

"I would encourage people to look at price across a consistent period of time, not as a one-week deal, for example. It is actually those one-week deals that drive footfall into our beer category and into our store and tend to have a knock-on effect on growing sales in other segments. It also means we are able to compete with other departments internally and ensure that we can command good, strong secondary space for beer.

"We had a couple of great offers on some of the leading lager lines pre-Christmas, and in those particular weeks our sales of speciality beer went up significantly more than that category had been tracking in the weeks leading up to it.

"We could deduce from that our customers bought some big packs on good deals, but also dived into some other products they might not otherwise have bought."

Superstrength lager is more on my radar than ever before

"We stock 50cl cans, but we don't promote our superstrength lager. We have a core offering of one own-label, one Tennent's and one Carlsberg. If our customers want a smaller can format then it is something we would consider and investigate.

"Would I have a big issue if it was a 44cl? I don't think so - if that was the can that was available throughout the market and that was what we were all taking .

"For example, if the brewers came to us and said all our superstrength lager now needs to come in a 44cl cans I would say fine, great, what date is the changeover?

"To be honest, it is something that is now more on my radar than it has ever been. Three months into the category I've had quite a lot of things to look at. It is something I will take a good look at over the next few weeks. It might be that we go down the road of encouraging our supply base to move into 44cl. I will certainly look at the possibility of doing that on own-label."

People who say beer fixtures are dull are right

"I think people who criticise dull beer fixtures are right. It is really difficult to get across messages about tasting notes and food matches, for example. In most of our stores we have some barkers up that talk about the different types of beer - blonde, traditional, amber and fruit beers. They give a brief, very basic, introduction to customers .

"We do support all our beers of the month and seasonal lines with tasting notes, and we try to educate as much as we can above the line through ­Sainsbury's Magazine and Fresh Ideas mail-outs. But there is certainly more that can be done.

"One thing we've just started doing is small barkers. It is great for things like premium bottled ales because it still advertises a deal but doesn't obstruct any other barkers or shelf-edge labels. On some beers we do have short tasting notes on shelf-edge labels in store. That is something we will get better at and look at pushing out on more specialist beer."

Our category review is giving space to a wider variety of beers

"I would question whether we need half a dozen pack formats of exactly the same liquid when we could have three or four pack formats of two or three brands .

"There is a big focus around our growth areas, a great range of products and great deals for our customers that encourage them to cross-shop and also encourage trial. Encouraging people to try across the range and try different brands and different products is vital for the future growth of the category.

"The more people we can get into those new and emerging segments the better."

Adding the magic in the beer aisle

"We are trialling a couple of different concepts in our new Add the Magic programme, which is trying to make the BWS category more interesting, interactive and informative, to encourage existing and potential customers down those aisles.

"We have chalk boards that talk about the beer of the month, its flavour, brief tasting notes, the price, and what a great food match would be. We are trying to create a bit of a different look and feel. It is a work in progress - we are developing it and trying to make it better before we decide how and when to expand it further."

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