Quiet Beer Whiners

On the afternoon of Friday, August 28, I ventured into a local grocery store to pick up a missing item for dinner. I live in Richmond, Virginia. 

Once I found my item, I was drawn to a beer display sporting Oktoberfest beers. 

Just in case you want to know, brewers make sure that Oktoberfest beers start appearing on shelves in August. You know when states in the mid-Atlantic experience temperatures hovering in the 90s, and high humidity and dew points make a person yearn for a cool October day.

That’s all a part of the marketing strategies from those who tout beer. I will never understand those strategies, but I don’t think I am supposed to understand them.

Anyway, I am sure that you are aware, and probably disappointed to know that the annual Oktoberfest held in Munich, Germany has been canceled this year. Something about a virus caused this cancellation.

But, if it brings you any comfort, Oktoberfest has already been rescheduled for 2021. The first kegs will be tapped promptly at 12 noon on September 18, and the last call for beer will go out at 10:30 p.m. on October 3.

You can research further on line why an event that runs more days in September than October is named Oktoberfest, but it is linked to a historic wedding and good fall weather.

Marketing seasonal beers and the range of prices

But, let me walk you back to that display of Oktoberfest beers.

Here was the lineup, with the location of where the beer  is brewed:  Dogfish Head(Delaware), Sam Adams(Boston), Legends(Richmond, Virginia), Devils Backbone(Virginia), and Bitburger(Germany).

Let me toss out the price per six pack for you. Maybe you can match the cost to the beer:  $8.99, $9.99, $10.49, $10.49, and $12.99. 

A practical thinker might make the following logical pricing guess: the beer from Richmond, Virginia probably cost $8.99 and the beer from Germany might cost $12.99.

Sadly, there is no logical thinking when it comes to beer pricing in the beer industry, especially for craft beer brewers. 

Here is the how the pricing matched up:  Dogfish Head $12.99, Sam Adams $10.49, Legends brewed in my hometown $10.49, Devils Backbone $9.99, and Bitburger $8.99. 

That’s correct, the beer brewed in Germany and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean cost less per six pack than the four craft beers brewed in America.

If this makes no sense to you, I am right there with you.

Now, it is possible that Bitburger contracted to have the beer brewed here in America. If that was the case, then that explains the lower cost. But, I would be floored if Bitburger chose this path.

I have a deep respect and admiration for craft brewers, but even though I have tried, I do not understand how they determine the pricing of their products with retailers.

I sense that craft brewers can charge what they want knowing that a segment of people who purchase their products are not concerned about the price they pay.

There is part of me that believes that mentality is absolutely true. Here is an example.

Sticker shock when no sticker is present

Recently, I have noted that in small retail stores that sell wine, beer, and maybe a few speciality food items that some of the craft beer on shelves and in coolers have no price labels. 

According to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, there is nothing in their guidelines that requires retailers to post/label prices for beer. I’m not sure this lack of pricing signage/labels is good for consumers.

Earlier this summer, a friend told me about purchasing two four packs of beer that were in sixteen ounce cans in a small retail store near his neighborhood.  He guessed the price per four pack was going to be in the 11 to 13 dollar range. 

When the cashier rang up his purchase, he was shocked. The cost was just under 40 dollars. He couldn’t believe the price, but also remembered their was no signage, no pricing label. 

My friend was buying based upon similar past purchases. No way he expected to shell out close to 40 dollars. And my point is this, if the cost for the beer had been properly labeled/displayed, my friend stated he would not have made this selection. 

In this situation, the purchaser experienced real sticker shock, and maybe this rude awakening could have been prevented with the presence of a price sticker.

However, is it possible this experience at the cash register is exactly what the retailer and the brewer want—a blind purchase of a beer, an impulse buy.  But, the customer,(and in this case a knowledgeable one) is buying on past pricing experiences. 

And in this situation, I don’t imagine too many customers as that sale is being recorded at the register are going to say—hold on— no way I’m shelling out almost 40 dollars for two four packs of beer. Potentially, that would be embarrassing for the customer and frustrating for the employee. 

But, is that what really needs to happen?

What kind of message would be sent to the retailer and the brewer if more consumers balked from sticker shock because no price was posted? 

I’m sure staffing a small retail store isn’t easy.

 Additionally, I’m assuming putting price labels on beer packaging is labor intensive and time consuming. But, consumers need to know the cost of the goods they are purchasing.

One small retailer commented to me, the customer can always ask the price of the beer being purchased. 

While this is true, asking an employee the cost of a six pack is also time consuming and potentially disruptive. This would especially be true if the customer asked continually about a number of non-priced beers.

If other larger retail outlets can effectively and efficiently put price labels on beer, why can’t smaller retailers?

I’m sure that answer is going to be linked to time, size of staff, and pennies.

It takes lots of courage to manage a small retail shop. Those shops usually offer valuable knowledge and helpful guidance to consumers who often become loyal customers. 

But, I think there is another piece to that loyalty— making sure customers who come into a store have the opportunity to be wise consumers if they want to be related to price.  A customer can’t do that if prices are not properly displayed. 

And quite honestly, as a customer who wants to support a small local retailer, I do not like walking around in a store where products that catch my attention have no price tag. 

That might be a marketing strategy toward an impulse buy or blind purchase, but I’m not that customer. Sadly, I am less likely to support that small local retailer.

A possible backward step

My third and final whine is about what I consider a backward step for some craft brewers. A few craft brewers are now brewing lower calorie beers and seltzer beverages.

If I remember correctly, many craft brewers started their breweries to provide a distinct alternative to big breweries and their lightweight beers. Quite honestly, I’m disappointed at this move toward lighter beers and seltzers. It appears so counter to the initial purpose for brewing craft beers.

In my mind, this move is about money, and maybe survival. 

During this COVID-19 pandemic, craft brewers across America have been forced to be very creative in adjusting how they continue to get their product into the hands of the public. I admire the brewers determination in this extremely difficult environment.

Yes, I am a rapidly aging old geezer. I will probably spend the days I have left on this earth finding things to whine about.  But in my mind, the craft brewing industry is worth the whining. 

The last thing on earth I would want to see is a craft beer commercial from Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada that takes the path of an old Miller Lite ad.

What the craft beer movement has carved out is an incredible story. That story deserves the opportunity to continue to grow.

I know craft brewing is labor intensive with huge financial risks. 

I know there is lots of data out there about craft brewers and their consumers. 

I doubt if much of that data pinpoints beer whiners. 

But, what craft brewers have to realize about data is that there are people in that data. And who knows the people in your data might just help craft brewers figure out what lies ahead.

Listening might be a dying tool for learning.

I think craft brewers have always been very good at learning, adapting, and taking risks.

What might craft brewers and their industry learn about themselves and their customers, including the whiners, with a little listening?

Who knows maybe there is  growth in listening?

Craft brewers who take the time to listen will learn there is a demographic in their customer base who is just as passionate as they are about craft beer.

It is like a principal seeking out the quietest teacher in the school  building for advice. That quiet teacher hears and sees a lot in that daily action. Sometimes quiet teachers offer helpful wisdom and practical ideas.

Maybe, the same might be said for quiet beer whiners.

A quiet Oktoberfest beer on a pretty September afternoon photo by Bill Pike

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