Beer shops under lockdown: Hop, Burns & Black

Off-trade beer sales are soaring but the closure of the on-trade from March 23 this year has had a massive impact on craft beer sales and breweries.

Drinks shops have been allowed to remain open as "essential businesses" during lockdown, but many of the smaller independent shops took the decision to close in order to keep staff and customers safe, preferring instead to focus on home deliveries.

DRN has been in touch with a number of bottle shops and beer retailers across the country to see how they have been operating and whether they have been able to tap into the surge in demand for beer.

In the first of a series of articles about independent beer retailers, DRN caught up with Jen Ferguson from Hop, Burns & Black:

Can you give me an idea of how your business is currently operating?

“We took the decision to close our physical stores at the end of an incredibly busy weekend on Sunday March 22.

“Even though we had a strict social distancing policy in place and restrictions on how many people could be in the stores at any one time, we and our team all agreed that we would feel more comfortable moving to a situation where we could fully control the environment.

“This meant pivoting to becoming a 100% online delivery service (previously our online shop had contributed around 30% of our revenue). We decided against a collection service as we really wanted to encourage our customers to stay home and stay safe.”

What have been the key challenges that you have faced over this period?

“One of the biggest challenges has been ensuring we can cope with demand. We wanted to keep our working "bubble" as small as possible and initially had an online team of three people. However demand has been so high that we've recently brought back another team member to help us cope.

“We also noticed a dip in beer supply in mid-April - this was because a number of breweries temporarily ceased operations around the time the government closed pubs and restaurants and when there was a few days of uncertainty around whether off licences and taprooms could operate. It's good to see many have since returned to brewing.

“There's also a wider challenge with some breweries deciding to focus their operations on direct sales to consumers, meaning in some cases that retailers are unable to buy their beer. Everyone has their own strategy to get through this crisis, but hopefully breweries will realise that it's important for their future too that independent retailers are still around at the end of all this.”

How have your sales been over the past few weeks?

“We've been extremely busy - our team calls it "Shit Christmas" because we've seen Christmas levels of turnover, but for all the wrong reasons. However, no one is taking great pleasure in increased sales at such a difficult time, especially as it is so hard to know what the future holds. Things could change again overnight. Right now we are just happy that we can continue to support our suppliers and keep getting their products to our house-bound customers for as long as we can.

“Our most popular products during the lockdown have been local beers and red wine. People really want to support their local businesses and are buying sessionable beers in bulk.

“Our sales of Gipsy Hill Hepcat Session IPA, which we sell singly, in 6-packs or by the case, rose by an insane 500%+ in March.

“We have also seen increased demand for our Le Grappin bagnums, 1.5l bags of wine which last for weeks once opened. People are definitely taking the lockdown seriously and buying in order to hunker down. Having said that, our hype beers are still selling out almost immediately though!

“We introduced local delivery shortly before the lockdown in addition to our courier options and this has been hugely popular, with large numbers of new customers coming on board. It's been great for us too, as it gives us an opportunity to get out and see our customers and keep those connections alive.”

What are your concerns for the future of the bottle shop and craft beer industry - can you highlight the key challenges the sector faces, in your opinion?

“I have enormous fears for the high street generally. The stats for March show that alcohol retailers have been one of the few sectors to show double digit growth during this awful time, but who else will be left at the end of this? The high street was already in a perilous position before this happened. It's grim to think what it may look like once this is over.

“The threats that independent bottle shops already faced are exacerbated even more now too. Supermarkets aren't going anywhere and, having squeezed out innumerable independent retailers over the years, will continue to do so in an even more strained environment. They may also look like a more favourable option for craft brewers, many of whom will have turned down their offers in the past but who may feel they have no other choice to get their beers out in volume in lieu of on-trade sales.

“Big beer behemoths, too, can prop up their faux craft arms with corporate funds and vast resources, whereas small independent breweries and retailers may not have the cash to weather the crisis or the resources and muscle to negotiate better deals with landlords etc.”

Separately, do you think there are any opportunities for off-trade beer specialists at the moment, and looking ahead?

“Those businesses that already had an online arm will have had a huge advantage in getting the jump on this crisis. Anyone not doing online will, quite simply, not survive. Those taking the time during this crisis to really finetune their online operations will come out the other end match-fit and ready for the next challenge.

“Plus, customers really want to support their local businesses, so appealing to hearts and minds is hugely important. Businesses need to make themselves an essential local service and remind people at every step why indies rule, with an unrivalled selection and exemplary, personalised service. How businesses behave during this time will not be forgotten. Be ethical, be outstanding, go the extra mile.”

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