Drinking during the time of COVID: A preference for familiar brands, larger formats

Given the endless jokes about “quarantinis” and the ever-shrinking gap between people’s morning coffee and afternoon cocktails, alcohol has been very much top-of-mind during the pandemic.

A June Nanos survey of 1,009 Canadians, commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), found that while about 80% of Canadians said they are drinking about the same or less than before the pandemic, 20.5% said they are drinking more often, and about the same number of people said they are drinking every day. Stress and boredom were the most frequently mentioned reasons for consumption.

Spirits Canada data for June, meanwhile, showed sales increased about 67% from a year ago: 3.16 million cases (that total includes ready-to-drink items like coolers and pre-mixed cocktails) compared to 1.89 million cases in 2019.

New research from Corby Spirit and Wine based on internal sales data also reveals purchase habits have changed significantly during the pandemic, with consumers indicating a preference for familiar “power brands” like Absolut and largely eschewing ultra-premium brands.

There is reduced opportunity for lesser-known brands to build a customer base during the pandemic, said Kishore Shankar, senior specialist, market intelligence with Corby in Toronto.

“People are gravitating to the brands they know off the top of their head,” he said. “All of those smaller niche brands, where people are in the store and maybe take the time to read the label and look at the bottle, you’re not going to have that.

“It’s not the best of times for a craft brand to be launching or in market right now.”

Corby’s sales data also suggests that customers are increasingly opting to purchase the larger format 1.75L bottles rather than the standard 375ml sizes in order to minimize the number of trips to the liquor store. Sales of trial-sized bottles (200ml) are also way down, he said.

“It pretty much comes down to the fact that many people aren’t too keen on staying in a store for too long,” said Shankar. “They just want to go with a brand they know and trust, and get a big size so they don’t have to come back for a couple of weeks.”

Consumers have also been shopping more online, with Corby noting that sales through its online hub are “booming” during the pandemic and that online sales at provincial bodies like Ontario’s LCBO and Quebec’s SAQ have grown in the “triple digits.”

Alcohol delivery service Drizly, which provides beer, wine and spirits delivery in 102 markets across the U.S. and Canada, said that its May sales were 400% greater than usual, while the average order size was up 50%, which it attributed to a “stock-up” mentality.

Corby also found that more people are reporting drinking wine outside of meal occasions, with wine sales “booming” in grocery stores as people look to minimize the number of stores they need to visit.

Shankar said that sales data suggests that Canadian brands—particularly wines— are also performing well during the pandemic.

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

Chris Powell