UK alcohol sales fall despite rise in home drinking

Business

Alcohol sales fell during 2020 as the prolonged closure of pubs and bars cancelled out a rise in home drinking during lockdown and more people developed a taste for non-alcoholic alternatives.

Healthcare providers have sounded the alarm about increased alcohol consumption among problem drinkers during the pandemic, while home delivery services have been singled out as posing a particular danger for addicts. But figures due next week are expected to show that British drinkers bought less alcohol overall during the year to the start of October, a period that included more than six months of coronavirus restrictions.

The annual market report from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) will show that beer sales fell by 10% and wine sales by 5% as increased online orders failed to offset the closure of swathes of the hospitality sector.

“It’s a myth that people are drinking more during lockdown,” said the WSTA’s chief executive, Miles Beale. “With so many pubs and restaurants being forced to close their doors and large gatherings banned, people are not drinking as much as they would be in normal circumstances.”

Supermarkets, which have been open throughout the pandemic, have enjoyed surging sales of alcohol as they picked up the trade lost by hospitality venues. Alcohol sales in supermarkets increased by a third in the three months to the end of November compared with the same period last year, according to the data firm Kantar, with cream liqueurs proving particularly popular before Christmas.

Gin sales in the retail sector also surged, topping £1bn for the first time, according to data released by WSTA on Friday. Overall, gin sales fell as retailers proved unable to pick up all the slack from pub and bar closures, with annual UK gin revenues £400m lower than 2019, at £2.2bn.

While retailers have cashed in, pubs have predicted that year-on-year revenues will plummet by up to 90% in December, a month that can account for a quarter of profits in a typical year.

Successive figures released during the pandemic have shown huge falls in trading at hospitality venues across the UK.

Pete Brown, chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers, said: “In a crisis like this, if your drinking is driven by stress and anxiety, of course it’s going to get worse, and people suffering need help. But they are not helped when this is falsely painted as a broad, societal problem. When you look at the full data, rather than picking selectively from it, twice as many of us are drinking less than drinking more, which is borne out by figures for total alcohol sales.”

While alcohol sales have declined overall, sales of booze-free alternatives, including 0% tequila, rum and whisky, have continued to rise. The “no-and-low” alcohol sector, partly fuelled by lower drinking rates among young people, has increased sixfold since 2015 according to Distill Ventures, a drinks startup backed by Diageo, owner of Smirnoff and Guinness.

Sales of non-alcoholic spirits were up 30% in the UK last year, data from the analysis firm Nielsen showed. The UK was the world’s most mature market, with 42 brands, 11 of them launched in 2020.

Distill Ventures predicted further take-up of non-alcoholic beers, wines and spirits during “Dry January”, when some people forgo alcohol.