Locked-down drinkers lose their thirst for Budweiser, Stella

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Anheuser-Busch InBev warned that its biggest three beer brands—Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona—are bearing the brunt of a collapse in sales caused by the coronavirus.

Revenue from those brands dropped 11% in the first quarter, about twice the rate of decline for the company’s overall portfolio of more than 500 labels. Shipments plunged the most in China, where the effect of COVID-19 lockdowns hit hardest because they started earlier than in the U.S. and Europe.

As demand evaporates amid a global shutdown of bars and restaurants, AB InBev and rivals Heineken and Carlsberg are racing to find ways to cut costs to reduce the effect on profit. So far AB InBev’s more expensive products are suffering less, but longer-term, as the pain from a pandemic-induced recession spreads from blue-collar to white-collar workers, that could also harm the collection of niche premium labels that AB InBev has built up in past years.

AB InBev is in more of a pinch than Heineken and Carlsberg, given that it’s also struggling to reduce a pile of debt that stood at $96 billion at the end of 2019. The brewer said Thursday that shipments plunged 32% in April.

Budweiser, Stella and Corona are in its mid-priced segment in the United States and are popular brands in bars, which have widely been closed during the pandemic.

Carlsberg said last week that it was already preparing for a new normal in which more profitable craft labels face more competition from cheaper alternatives. An eye-opening moment for CEO Cees ‘t Hart was when he took a taxi to Amsterdam airport on April 26 on his way to Copenhagen: He was the driver’s first customer in a month, and the 60-euro fee his only income.

“We need to cater to this with a slightly different portfolio—it could be that for a while, we will have have a focus on economic brands,” the CEO said. “The aftermath will be much longer and maybe quite a bit more painful, with people not having the money to spend.”

Cut-price beer is performing well in some markets, such as South Africa. AB InBev was already seeing its inexpensive Lion Lager grow at a double-digit rate in the first quarter there before its production and distribution was halted to comply with a government mandate.

China’s lockdowns were largely responsible for AB InBev’s 9.3% decline in total first-quarter shipments, and excluding that market, the decline was only 3.6%. That may bode badly for Europe and the U.S., which entered lockdowns later.

While some craft breweries are seeing surging demand from drinkers looking to prop up local producers, catastrophic levels of unemployment in the U.S. in the longer term may eventually lead those consumers to switch to less glamorous labels such as Bud Light.

In recent years, demand for craft has surged, and the industry will be keen to see if that can continue. In China, the market hardest-hit by COVID-19 restrictions in the first quarter, AB InBev’s superpremium offerings outperformed the rest.

AB InBev, Carlsberg and Heineken, caught out by the trend in developed markets such as the U.S. and the U.K., have collectively spent billions of dollars acquiring popular small brands like Devil’s Backbone, Elysian Brewing, Lagunitas and London Fields.

“There will be permanent economic damage and the shape of this recession is likely to impact low-income workers hardest, and we probably will see some down-trading as a result of this,” Trevor Stirling, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said by phone.

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