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21-11-2011, 11:00
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Go in a typical major supermarket, and you will find a range of beers that would not have disgraced a cutting-edge independent off-licence fifteen years ago. A huge spread of British independent and micro brewers, German and Czech pilsners, Belgian specialities, American craft beers. That’s an amazing transformation from the time when all you’d get is cans of McEwan’s Export and Carling Black Label.

But that spells bad news for independent off licences, who increasingly see the supermarkets encroaching on their territory. The growth in the appreciation of beer has led to a huge rise in beer-focused pubs, but the specialist off licences have at best trod water. The big difference is that, when you go out for a drink, you are specifically looking for a drinking venue, but when shopping for beer most people tend to combine it with shopping for all the rest of the range of household essentials.

Clearly the primary aim of Tesco et al is to make money, but at the end of the day you will only make money by satisfying consumer demand. They know that alcoholic drinks are probably the biggest single category in the typical grocery spend and, if they fail to offer a decent selection of beer, their customers will take their business elsewhere. The supermarket beer range may not be quite the best in the world, but for most customers it’s good enough to ensure they don’t bother making a pilgrimage to the specialist.

All too often that leaves the independents scrabbling for the last 1% of trade amongst the people for whom “you can get it in Tesco” is a major reason for not drinking a beer. Those obscurantist beer geeks will always be there, but they’re not the foundation on which you can build a growing business.

I call in at my most local specialist – the Bottle Stop in Bramhall – about once a month, and pick up a few bottles. But that’s only because I’m passing it, and otherwise I wouldn’t be too unhappy to exist on a diet of what Tesco and Morrisons sell.
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