While the on-trade has been traditionally viewed as a launch pad for new products, the past year has seen an increasing number of drinks launched into the off-trade first, or into both sectors at the same time.
Communication between off-trade buyers and suppliers has improved, according to key suppliers and, as a result, major retailers are more likely to agree to new products. Tesco's BWS boss Dan Jago sa id it's no surprise that suppliers are increasingly focusing on the off-trade, considering the sector's growing importance in the UK.
He mention ed InBev's parallel launch of Peetermans Artois, and Diageo's Baileys flavours off-trade launch as examples of this trend.
"What's increasingly happening is that suppliers will launch a product and there will be one version for the on-trade and a different version for the off-trade," Jago sa id.
Jago thinks suppliers who do not realise the importance of the off-trade will be left behind. "The off-trade is the majority of the UK drinks market, and those who are not looking to the off-trade for new product development are missing out on a potential slice of the market." The team at Tesco are proud of their role in encouraging the development and retail of new products, he added.
Global Brands has traditionally launched NPD into the on-trade, but decided to put its new product, Corky's Strawberries & Cream, into Morrisons first.
Creative manager Andrew Bond sa id: "It's the first time we have done it this way around - it's because, as we were developing the flavour, we had more interest from our off-trade customers. It opens up different opportunities for us, and gives us more control over the launch."
Bond sa id Global Brands' relationship with off-trade buyers has improved as a result of the general growth in UK off-trade sales.
He add ed: "There's more of a proactive approach in the off-trade side of the business these days, and it's a good thing for the whole industry. If you're developing a product, it's easier to pick up the phone and have a direct conversation.
"Off-trade buyers are more open-minded and willing to stock new products than they were."
S&N UK launched Bulmers Original and Jacques cider into the off-trade weeks before their on-trade release last year. The type of product largely determines which channel it's launched in, according to S&N off-trade boss Mark Gerken. "We launched Jacques in the off-trade first because we wanted to target people buying bottles of wine," he sa id.
Gerken add ed: "What we're trying to do first is build up a distribution base before we advertise, and we have to consider the best way to reach consumers with NPD."
Gerken sa id S&N is prepared to continue releasing some of its new
products in the off-trade "if we felt that was the best way to build distribution".
Like Global Brands' Bond, Gerken
believes off-trade buyers have become more responsive to new trends. "I
think there's definitely been a more positive response from buyers to try new and different things, particularly at the premium end of the category.
"New product development is key to getting more value, therefore buyers and suppliers are working together more closely and effectively ," he said.
Adam Irvine, Diageo's innovation commercialisation manager, sa id the company looks at every innovation project on its own merits. "Every innovation we develop is based on a consumer or customer insight and opportunity," he said.
"Sometimes this insight will lead to a product being developed for the on-trade channel and other times for the off-trade and sometimes for both. One does not necessarily outweigh the other and we are not actively seeking to change our approach towards where we focus our innovation projects," he sa id.
While certain drinks, such as the Classic Mix range, are designed solely for the off-trade, Irvine sa id: " It is also common that we first launch a product in one channel and then we extend the opportunity to the other."
Such has been the case with Pimm's Winter, which w ent into the off-trade first and then to the on-trade, and Smirnoff Ice which was launched into the on-trade and then to the off-trade.
Halewood's brand marketing controller Richard Clark sa id: "If you have brands in the off-trade such as Caribbean Twist and Lambrini and you want to launch NPD alongside that, then you would put your major focus behind the off-trade and customers who have been loyal to the brand."
But the on-trade is still very important for launching products, sa id Clark, adding: "if your target market is 18 to 24-year-olds - people who try things first - then they are more likely to try them in the on-trade".
He add ed, however, that there is an increasing trend towards trialling products in the on and off-trades at the same time.
He said: "Off-trade retailers understand their business better. They are now clearly communicating what their role is and sharing their objectives with breweries and manufacturers."
Not every supplier paints a rosy picture of retailer/supplier relations, though. Beam UK launched Harveys Orange into the supermarket sector first last year because of the predominance of sherry drinkers among supermarket shoppers.
But ease of dealing with multiple grocers was not uppermost in the mind of Beam's managing director, Adrian McKeon. He sa id: "If you're launching a product in the off-trade, given the bureaucratic and administrative processes of some of the major retailers, it can be better to launch in the independent sector instead."
McKeon said buying teams at major multiples can be very restricted by pressure on shelf space and management demands.
"It's getting worse as pressure increases for supermarkets to maximise profits," he added.
Pressure on buyers aside, though, it's likely that retailers will continue to be first to market with new products this year.
That can only be good for bringing excitement, theatre and, ultimately, more business, to the take-home drinks sector.