From beers to spirits and even ready-to-drink cocktails, supermarket sales of no- and low-alcohol drinks have soared during lockdown as consumers become used to popping them into their trolleys with their grocery staples.
Steep growth in the “nolo” drinks category was previously driven by sales in pubs, bars and clubs, but Covid-related restrictions and curfews have increased consumers’ thirst for hangover-free options from the supermarket and corner shop, as drinking habits have become home-based.
Even with the end of “sober October”, this trend is likely to continue into the festive season, driven by the younger generation, with 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.
The Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, said the “nolo” category was becoming mainstream as part of the weekly shop.
“The trend has grown hugely again this past year and notably during lockdown,” said its chief executive, John Timothy. “Before 2020, sales were driven largely through pubs, bars and clubs, but the increase this year has come from shoppers including low and no options in their baskets to be enjoyed at home. They are likely to be part of the moderate majority who continue to enjoy the experience of drinking but are sometimes choosing reduced alcohol or nonalcoholic options.”
Low- and no-alcohol sales increased by 32.5% immediately before the March lockdown, according to the market research company Nielsen, as shoppers stockpiled to moderate their drinking. Since then, retail sales have increased by 30% to £188m, as part of an increased focus on health and wellbeing. There is anecdotal evidence of a marginal increase in “nolo” sales in some pubs and restaurants.
Innovation from big brands has bolstered choice for consumers. This week Guinness launched an alcohol-free version in Waitrose and Morrisons supermarkets in the UK. And Ghost Ship (alcohol by volume 0.5%), launched by the Suffolk brew Adnams two years ago, now accounts for 10.7% of its beer sales.
Of smaller new entrants, the Small Beer Brew Co, which specialises in classic beer styles below 2.8% ABV, has been selling its Small Beer in 200 Waitrose stores, and introduced its session pale in Majestic Wine stores in October. Overall, sales have more than doubled (up 149%) compared with the same time last year.
Small Beer’s co-founder James Grundy said: “At a time when small luxuries were more important than ever, we found Small Beer provided those who enjoyed it with a moment to step back from the melee of lockdown.”
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association noted a sharp rise in the popularity of “nolo” ready-to-drink cocktails such as gin and tonics in cans – convenient in the warmer weather when meetings were allowed in parks and open spaces. The category was worth £109m between April and June, when drinkers knocked back more canned cocktails at home during lockdown than sparkling wine.
Waitrose reported that its sales of low- and no-alcohol spirits and wines increased by 22% on the same time last year, versions of beer were up 29% and cider 13%.
Jamie Matthewson, Waitrose’s buying manager for wines, said: “Sales of low- and no-alcohol drinks have been consistently strong, and we’re now diversifying our range even more, including alcohol-free sparkling wine and milk stout. ‘Stoptober’ and Dry January definitely have a positive effect on sales, but this is a trend that has grown exponentially over the last few years.”