Caesar’s Forum was brimming with excitement as wholesalers, suppliers, on- and off-premise retailers and more gathered for Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America’s (WSWA) Access LIVE 2024 in Las Vegas. The multi-day event brought together around 2,500 beverage alcohol attendees all under one roof to network and discuss areas of growth along with challenges in the industry.
There was a lot that was on everyone’s minds, which was made clear by the variety of topics that were discussed throughout the event. From cannabis-infused beverages and low- and no-alcohol options gaining traction to retail theft and inflation concerns, no stone was left unturned.
Taking Lessons From the Beverage Alcohol Industry
Probably one of the biggest hot topics discussed was cannabis-infused beverages. In the exhibit hall, cannabis beverage brands took up an entire corner — lining up the rows to showcase their drinks.
Pamela Epsetin, Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer, Terpene Belt Farms, was one of the few speakers trying to spread education and awareness about this up-and-coming trend. “There is a demand — people want cannabinoids in everything. As we do that, there needs to be a desire to infuse standards of consumer safety and health in the marketplace,” she said during a panel discussion.
Instead of trying to push these brands away, Epstein and Rachel Burkons, Founder of Smoke Sip Savor, both advised that there are countless ways the cannabis industry can learn from the beverage alcohol industry to bring consumers what they want in the safest way possible.
“Beverage is the tip of the spear in bringing cannabis and hemp to the masses because everyone understands beverages,” explained Burkons. “There’s water, coffee and moments attached to beverages. So it’s a great way to bring an entirely new category to a consumer who maybe won’t pick up a joint or an edible, but already understands beverage as a broad category.”
“As we continue to develop an on-premise model, we should use the existing infrastructure and framework that alcohol beverage has created,” Burkons continued. “There’s a solid infrastructure in distributing and getting beverages onto retail shelves, so bringing that existing framework to the cannabis industry will help drive normalization and put this in places where consumers can experience cannabis.”
As it may be a concern for some, the cannabis industry is not coming in and trying to take over everything that the alcohol industry has already established. Both Epstein and Burkons explained that there’s so much opportunity for hemp beverage companies to work within the existing three-tier system, to grow their market share and create a path to the basics of some of the manufacturing and distribution processes.
SipSource Forecasting and Trends
A news release sent to Beverage Wholesaler mentioned key trends for wine and spirits sales from year-end 2023 and moving into 2024 that SipSource Analysts Danny Brager and Dale Stratton discussed at a panel during the event.
Analyst Dale Stratton noted wholesaler inventories for wine, spirits and beer are at historic highs. Consumers and retailers alike are pulling back, resulting in decreased demand. “In a constrained market,” Stratton said, “more items aren’t likely the answer — it’s about the right items.”
In spirits, ready-to-drink (RTD) premixed cocktails continue to drive the category forward, with tequila prospering. Higher-end price tiers will continue to slow, with the best rates of growth in the mid-priced groups.
Wine continued to decline, Brager said, but with white varietals doing better than reds. Prosecco growth remains healthy, and the growth in port (driven by a TikTok trend) is moderating. Table wines in the $11 to $25 tier are performing the best. Luxury wines continue their premiumization slide, though SipSource projects that will moderate later in 2024.
Wholesaling Lessons Throughout the Years
In between talk of trends and what the beverage alcohol industry should expect this year, four executives from different wholesalers shared their advice on lessons they learned throughout the years.
“When I came into the family business, we had a sales manager who was a throwback to the prohibition days,” began Robert Harmelin, Executive VP, Industry Relations, Allied Beverage Group. “His advice to me was that whenever I walk into a restaurant or bar, don’t go in through the front door — go in through the back. Because what you’ll see going on in the back will tell you a lot about what’s going on in the front.”
“This is the golden age of selling because of what suppliers and wholesalers are doing,” said Charlie Merinoff, Executive Vice Chairman of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “We used to just serve information in a teacup to our customers. But now, we build a firehose with all of this information on who the suppliers and brands are. It’s the role of the salesperson to know the account and help customers select certain brands and bring them to life.”
One of the most important things salespeople can do in order to sell well is to go out and see the customer in person. As Harmelin put it: “You can’t phone it in, you can’t email it in — you need to go out and see your customers.”
WSWA Gets Competitive
During the Access LIVE event, WSWA also announced the winner of its 2024 Brand Battle competition: Quintaliza Tequila. Beating out six category winners, the Miami-based craft brand’s flagship product is a five-month tequila reposado aged two months in American whiskey barrels and then three months in coffee barrels, the company states.
The 2024 edition of Brand Battle began in early January with multiple competitors vying for wins in the categories of vodka and gin, tequila and mezcal, wine, whiskey and scotch, RTD/hard seltzers, innovation and miscellaneous, according to WSWA. The championship round was held Tuesday, January 30, on the Main Stage. The winner was chosen by a panel of judges as well as conference attendees, who used a special QR code to cast their votes from the Brand Battle audience.
Another contest highlight at the event was the 2024 Best in Show Wine and Spirits Tasting Competition, which pitted nearly 400 products in blind, head-to-head tastings to pick the finest, most flavorful drinks in 35 categories.
The contest began on Sunday, January 28, when judges evaluated all entries to award silver, gold and double gold designations, WSWA stated. Products were judged completely blind — liquid only, no brands or packaging — with each product identified to evaluators by a three-character code.
Entries winning double gold in the first round advanced to the second round on Monday during which the full panel tasted all 168 products to pick the “Best of Show” winners. All told, 11 wines and 24 spirits were selected by the panel for the highest distinction.
The Pressing Issue of Organized Retail Crime
In the closing keynote of WSWA’s Access Live, Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America President and CEO Francis Creighton sat down with FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate to discuss organized retail crime (ORC) and cyber security, two topics faced by all three tiers of the beverage alcohol industry.
As stated in a news release sent to Beverage Wholesaler, Creighton pointed out that ORC isn’t simple shoplifting. Rather, it involves large-scale theft of products that are then sold illegally either in brick-and-mortar stores or online.
“Organized crime is something the FBI has a long history of combating,” said Abbate, “and we go after those enterprises and try to take them down.” According to the Deputy Director, the agency has made headway on the issue and will continue focusing on the problem, according to WSWA.
Organized retail crime is more than a law enforcement issue — it’s also an industry problem, and it impacts all three tiers, WSWA stated. While the current trend began in 2018, it escalated precipitously during 2020 and 2021, when widespread masking enabled thieves to hide their faces.
In response, businesses (including wine and spirits retailers) are spending an enormous amount of money and effort implementing measures such as anti-theft devices, armed guards, increased surveillance and locked cases. Unfortunately, the added security precautions negatively impacted sales, according to WSWA.
In an earlier panel discussion, Natalie Shield with Kearney noted that up to 30% of consumers across all categories will abandon a purchase entirely when faced with a locked-up product.
As wholesalers continue to navigate the rebounding of sales post-pandemic, many industry experts throughout Access LIVE predicted that the future is still bright. Beverage alcohol consumption is not going anywhere anytime soon, but in order to survive, companies need to adapt to changing consumer preferences.