Drink Tank

Cheap alcohol deals, but at what cost?

Beer with your breakfast cereal? Tequila with your toilet paper?

Supermarkets are no longer just about selling groceries. In Australia, the two largest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, are now also market leaders in selling packaged ‘takeaway’ alcohol from their associated liquor stores.

Over three-quarters of all alcohol sold in Australia is in the form of packaged liquor, and these two supermarket retailers hold 60 per cent of this market between them. Given this market dominance there is a need to better understand the retail liquor sector, including the marketing strategies they use, to identify potential areas for regulatory or other approaches to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm.

Researchers from the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, including this author, explored how Coles and Woolworths promoted alcohol in their weekly catalogues over a year.[i]

The Coles and Woolworths catalogues promote liquor retailed through their Liquorland and BWS stores respectively. These ‘convenience’ format liquor stores are frequently co-located with supermarkets, rank highly in national market share (BWS is second and Liquorland third), and promote alcohol weekly in supermarket catalogues distributed widely across Australia (excluding Tasmania).

While catalogues form just one part of retail marketing strategies, they have broad reach. Four in ten respondents aged over 13 years (eight million Australians) report reading supermarket catalogues each week.[ii] Catalogues have minimal restrictions on their content or control over who reads them, despite promoting alcohol alongside general grocery items.

Our review found alcohol was promoted every week and that price-based promotions were predominant. The median price per standard drink was $1.49 and started at just 19 cents.

A new report from Britain has revealed similar findings, with alcohol continuing to be sold at ‘pocket money’ prices (as low as 16p per unit) in supermarkets in the United Kingdom.

Often, customers would have to buy quite large volumes of alcohol to get the promoted discounts. Just under half (45 per cent) of all promotions by the two stores required the purchase of multiple items (such as multi-buys for cartons of beer or bottles of wine). On average, you’d need to buy the equivalent of 31.7 standard drinks to participate in a promotion.

Wine cask promotions were the cheapest per standard drink across all product types, and often required customers to buy multiple casks (the equivalent of up to 15 litres of wine).

It has been suggested that the large supermarket chains use very cheap alcohol as a loss leader, to encourage customers into their stores to make other purchases.[iii],[iv] In Australia, the Wine Equalisation Tax calculates tax based on wholesale price, not alcohol content, facilitating the low cost of cask wine. Without a regulated minimum price per standard drink, this enables supermarkets to use low-price alcohol as a key strategy for approaching market competition.

‘Value for money’ was a key theme across many of the promotions, implying that the retailers’ focus on price discounts and ‘multi-buys’ is supporting their customers. But, given the considerable weight of evidence indicating that alcohol use increases as prices decrease, any economic benefits for customers are likely to be at the detriment of community health and safety.

The catalogue’s emphasis on purchasing larger quantities of alcohol is also of concern, particularly given the regularity of such promotions. For instance, about three-quarters of all catalogues promoted deals involving multiple wine casks. There is some evidence that purchased alcohol is more likely to be drunk immediately rather than stockpiled, particularly by younger drinkers.[v]

Specific controls on alcohol retailer advertising are limited, inconsistent, and vary between jurisdictions. This piecemeal approach and reliance on industry self-regulation have been criticised by health advocates as ineffective and inadequate.[vi]

Price controls, such as a minimum price per standard drink, and tax reforms are needed to limit the promotion of very low priced high volume alcohol, which may contribute to alcohol harm.

This research gives just one more example of the need for independent controls on alcohol marketing in Australia. This includes supermarket catalogue advertising, where alcohol is marketed among everyday grocery products.

[i] Johnston, R., Stafford, J., Pierce, H., Daube, M. (2016). Alcohol promotions in Australian supermarket catalogues. Drug and Alcohol Review. DOI: 10.1111/dar.12478

[ii] Roy Morgan Research. (2014). Catalogues hit the mark with shoppers. Article No. 5974. Retrieved from: http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/5974-catalogues-hit-the-mark-with-australian-shoppers-september-2014-201412090031

[iv] Jones, E. (2005). Liquor retailing and the Woolworths/Coles juggernaut. Journal of Australian Political Economy 55:23-47.

[v] Jones, S., Magee, C. (2011). Exposure to alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption among Australian adolescents. Alcohol and Alcoholism 46: 630-37.

[vi] Moodie, R., Stuckler, D., Monteiro, C., et al. (2013). Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries. Lancet 381:670-9.

Robyn Johnston

Dr Robyn Johnston is a Research Associate with the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth. Robyn and the Alcohol Advertising Review Board team welcome complaints from the Australian community about inappropriate alcohol advertising.

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