After nearly a year of the pandemic, we’ve explored many of the knock-on effects of life in lockdown in detail. From the way we celebrate holidays, to our expectations around travel, nearly all that we do has been influenced by the coronavirus.

Sifting through the changes, it’s no surprise people’s interest in alcohol has also been profoundly affected.  

Many bars and nightclubs have been periodically shuttered or forced to operate well under capacity, professional sporting events are played largely without fans, and live concerts have moved almost entirely onto live streams. 

Yet, far from dampening the drinking habits of consumers, it appears the virus has been a catalyst for many to ramp up their alcohol intake and begin experimenting with new brands and types of alcohol.

People are drinking more because of the pandemic.

The pandemic caused a rapid decline in the amount of consumers eating out at restaurants on a regular basis, and a similar decline in the overall interest for eating out and attending live events.  

Even still, many drinkers around the world – those who drink beer, wine, spirits or other alcoholic beverages at least monthly – started to consume more alcohol, more often throughout the day than they normally would.

Chart: countries where drinking behaviors are most affected by the pandemic

These drinking behaviors, no doubt spurred by boredom and isolation, were driven by typical drinkers as well as some more unexpected groups.

For the most part, the strictness of a country’s lockdown determined how much alcohol intake would rise as a result.   

By late May 2020, some of the most serious lockdowns had been in effect in New Zealand, the UK, and many urban areas across the U.S., and these countries saw some of the largest increases in alcohol intake among drinkers.

Yet, lockdowns didn’t always have this effect.

In Italy, which saw some of the highest rates of infection and strictest lockdowns throughout April, drinkers were 42% less likely than the global average to say they were drinking more overall because of the coronavirus.  

Increased alcohol consumption was generally driven by consumers with a shared set of characteristics. For example, those drinking more alcohol (by volume) were more likely to be younger men, with higher income and education levels than average.

More generally, the traits of those drinking at times they normally wouldn’t, compared to those drinking more volume, are largely the same.

The exception here is parents – who were over 40% more likely than non-parents to say they drink alcohol at unusual times.

We know homeschooling has had a serious effect on the mental health of younger Gen Zs. It also seems to have spurred on many parents-turned-tutors to break up their routine with a daytime beverage.  

Online alcohol purchases have grown throughout 2020.

Among drinkers in 2020, online purchases of alcohol have grown across the board, with many consumers opting for services that will deliver alcohol in a contactless fashion.

However, the adoption of online delivery services differs slightly based on the alcohol and brands in question.

Chart: rise in online alcohol purchases

While wine and spirit drinkers are more likely than the average drinker to order their alcohol online, beer drinkers remained largely in line with drinkers overall.

It seems that harder alcohols have fared better in the online delivery space, yet this isn’t true for all beer brands.

Some beer drinkers – like those of Guinness and Corona – were over 30% more likely than the average drinker to order alcohol online in 2020, and Budweiser drinkers (the most popular beer brand globally) were more than 50% more likely than the average drinker to do the same.

The most successful alcohol brands in 2020 can attribute much of their success to dominating the online delivery space.

Drinkers of Hennessy, the most popular cognac brand, Bacardi, the most popular rum brand, and Jack Daniels, the most popular whiskey brand, were all more likely to have ordered alcohol online compared to the average spirits drinker.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of these online orders have been driven by tech-oriented millennial drinkers and seasoned Gen X drinkers.

By the end of 2020, over one fifth of millennial drinkers ordered alcohol online, and millennials are also the most likely of all generations to say they research alcohol brands online before purchasing.

Crucially, online research of alcohol brands increased among all drinkers throughout last year.

Consumers have started to experiment with new brands.

In a space growing more accustomed to socially distanced purchases, it appears consumers have become less brand-oriented.

Chart: drinkers are less brand loyal

Globally, only around half of alcohol drinkers say they’re loyal to the brands they like, and this number fell across the board last year.

Brand loyalty remains highest in the Middle East and Africa, but these consumers have also experienced the sharpest declines in loyalty over the course of last year, as well as the sharpest increases in online alcohol purchases. 

Pair this with data from GWI’s coronavirus study last May, and we see that many drinkers used the pandemic to experiment with new brands and new types of alcohol entirely.

At the height of coronavirus hysteria last spring, over 15% of alcohol drinkers in 20 markets said they’d tried new brands or types of alcohol during the pandemic. And we can see a link between trying ‘new’ types of alcohol and brands, and an increase in online ordering throughout 2020.

From profiling various drinkers, we know Hennessy drinkers were over 85% more likely than the average drinker to have tried new types of alcohol, while Jack Daniels drinkers were nearly 60% more likely to have tried new brands of alcohol.

Overall, experimenting with different brands and types of alcohols is more common among spirit and wine drinkers, who are also the most likely to order alcohol online, and these facts together point to the indirect relationship between online purchasing and brand loyalty.

Looking ahead, brands are going to need to find a way to make their online presence stronger in order to keep consumers from looking elsewhere. 

Where do we go from here?

Right now, it’s unclear if the pandemic uptake of online alcohol purchases will continue as we return to relative normal later this year and into 2022.

However, the data suggests that in the immediate future many of these drinking habits will persist. 

In-home drinking has become more commonplace, and many drinkers are still concerned with returning to local restaurants and public events. 

At the end of 2020, only 40% of drinkers across 8 countries said they were comfortable returning to indoor dining, and just 35% said they were comfortable attending large outdoor events, such as concerts or festivals. 

These comfort levels will of course be affected by the vaccine rollout, policies around vaccine passports and other safety measures for public life.

In the meantime, brands will need to focus on the digital channels where alcohol purchases are increasing in order to hold their customer base against declining brand loyalty. 

Beer infographic

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