And drinks have indeed been had.
According to market research firm Nielsen, during the seven-week period ending April 18, alcohol sales at brick-and-mortar stores were up 21 percent compared to the same period a year ago. The reason: When the coronavirus pandemic closed bars and restaurants and canceled social gatherings, people began drinking more alcohol at home – perhaps as a way to unwind from the stresses of the “new normal.” (See: homeschool.)
Speaking of stress, let’s not forget that early on in the pandemic, it was easier to buy alcohol than toilet paper. Most categories across Walgreens – and the retail industry as a whole – have felt the impact of this change, including wine and beer (sold at 6,000 stores), and spirits (sold at 1,800 stores).
Monday, May 25, is both National Wine Day and Memorial Day – which honors those who have given their lives in service of our country and unofficially represents the start of summer – so we figured there was no better time to talk to Brigid Martin, Walgreens’ category manager of wine and spirits. Here are her top 10 observations from the pandemic, including how people are shopping and celebrating differently, the realization that she’s in her dream job, summer drink trends and more.
- People are buying more and spending more. “COVID-19 has really driven a lot of business into wine, but much more into spirits. Think about when you go to a restaurant. You might typically get a nice glass of wine or a cocktail, something you're not going to make at home. But people don’t have that option right now, so of course they're buying more wine and spirits. What we're also finding at Walgreens is that a segment of our wine consumers want to trade up – they’re pursuing wine in the more premium range ($8+), which might be higher than they paid in the past. Walgreens has always carried value options and will continue to do so, but we’ve done a lot of work over the last year and a half to add more premium options so that our offering appeals to customers with many different preferences.”
- On sampling alcohol for a living. “I’ve been with Walgreens for nine years, but only in this role since last August. I think I have the coolest job in the world, and I can’t imagine what I could ever do that would top this gig. I obsess over the consumer of alcohol. I try to imagine what they’re drinking and why. I try to envision what emotions they’re feeling when they partake, what they’re celebrating and how they’re making memories. Mostly, I hypothesize about what they need and how they need it. From there, it’s my job to get those items in one place and in an environment that delights and inspires them.”
- Friday night research. “Friday nights are the new favorite in our house because our Saturday mornings are no longer packed with sports and activities for the kids – we have a 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. Once my husband and I put them to bed, we’ll try out a new cocktail, listen to music, play a board game and stay up a little later than usual. When I’m not trying products, I’m reading about them or researching production processes and methods. There are very few things that have the rich history and craftsmanship that wine and spirits do. And now, more than ever, these products bring us comfort. When we can’t go out to a restaurant and have a nice cocktail and dinner, we create new occasions at home, often with the people closest to us. We’re trying new things, crafting new recipes and expanding our palates.”
- People are like whiskey. “I’m really into whiskey at the moment. Whiskey is complex; there are somany different kinds and each has its own qualities and taste profiles. Whiskey is the amalgamation of every single detail of its ‘upbringing.’ The final product is 100 percent impacted by every little thing that happened to it along the way: ingredients, climate, barrel type, rotation, aging – all of it comes together beautifully to create a final product that’s strong and smooth and complicated. All of those things are true for us too, right? We, too, are the result of every single detail of our lives that transpired until now. A past step in a different direction may have landed us somewhere else entirely.”
- Walgreens is there for your spontaneous get-togethers. “Our lives aren’t planned out right now. We’ve slowed down, and impromptu situations have begun to pop up. Now that the weather has been improving, sometimes I’ll just go have a glass of wine with my mom in her backyard. We don’t get close to each other, not physically, but I’ll grab wine and snacks from Walgreens on my way there. Like many people, I’ve also been having Zoom happy hours with my girlfriends. As mothers and working women, we have so much on our plates right now. These social events help us feel a little normal again. I also have a hypothesis that the consumer might be running out of wine and spirits at home faster than they anticipated. And so they have to run back out and grab something, and instead of making another trip to the grocery store, Walgreens is a really convenient option for them. Just a quick in and out to grab a bottle or two, and then you’re back home to enjoy cocktail hour with your core unit, whether that’s your family, partner, roommates, pets, whomever.”
- Peaks occurred around holidays. We saw our first one on March 16 and 17. St. Patrick’s Day is always a pretty strong day for us, but this year people were mostly celebrating at home because it was right when all of the shelter-in-place ordinances started. We saw another peak around Mother's Day, which is also normal, but this year was even stronger. I think we'll continue to see this around summer holidays – Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day – while we’re still celebrating these social events at home.
- Consumers are sizing up. “People aren’t shopping as often as they used to, so the industry is seeing consumers buying larger sizes right now – 24- or 30-packs of beer, boxed wine and 1.75-liter spirits. Walgreens is also seeing this trend. I think it’s just a continuation of what we saw in the very beginning with COVID-19. People are buying more when they go out in order to minimize the need to restock. However, just as large sizes are doing well, so are our smaller sizes, particularly in spirits. This is likely because consumers are trying more cocktail recipes than ever before and don’t want to commit to a large bottle of something just to try a trending cocktail. It doesn’t hurt that the price points on these smaller bottles, usually 375 mL, are more palatable for high-end brands. It makes a premium spirit more approachable.”
- Mixers are having a moment. “Drink mixers are seeing astounding growth – ginger beer and margarita mixes, to name a few – which hints toward a bourgeoning at-home cocktail culture, a shift that could potentially last well beyond COVID. So we’re thinking about Walgreens in the future and how we can continue to spice up our mixer offering. To that end, I’m following a lot of bartenders and mixologists online. They’ve done a fantastic job of beefing up their social media presence as a way to keep busy while they’re out of work and continue to refine their craft. The creativity that some of these people have is just inspiring. It helps us stay connected to what the customer is seeing online and think about how we can bring that to our stores.”
- Hard seltzers will be a hit. “Every brand of wine, spirits and beer is dipping into the hard seltzer trend, which will continue to be popular this summer. Hard seltzers come in ready-to-drink cans and tend to have fewer calories and a lower alcohol content than regular wine or beer. In 2,000 Walgreens stores this summer, we’ll have a hard seltzer display in our seasonal aisle to make it even easier for the consumer to grab all their summer essentials in one spot. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to connect adult beverages to the seasonal aisle. Alcohol consumption is so occasion- and celebration-based, and every holiday gives us an avenue to do that.”
- People will continue to celebrate differently. “Consumers will likely stick close to home with small groups of friends and family for a while. And even when restaurants and bars do open, they won’t operate at full capacity. We know that in the short term, consumers are going to have to keep celebrating differently, and we want to be there for them no matter what or where they’re celebrating. It’s such an uncertain time. Consumers are looking for retailers and service providers they can trust. No one has the storied history of trust, care and accessibility that Walgreens does. On the adult beverage team, we feel strongly that people still want to have a good, fun life despite the circumstances. We hope we can do our part to help them accomplish that in responsible way.”
Brigid’s picks for summertime sips
Stella Rosa Black
Drink this semi-sweet, semi-sparkling red blend straight with suggested pairings of blue cheese-stuffed hamburgers and beer brats (both are perfect for Memorial Day and all summer long). Or use it as a mixer for a wine-based cocktail, such as:
Stella Cuervo Sangria
- 4 cups Stella Rosa Black
- ¾ cup Jose Cuervo Tequila
- 1½ cup orange juice
- 1 cup fresh lime juice
- ¼ cup triple sec
- ½ cup strawberries, sliced
- 2 oranges, sliced
- 2 cups sparkling water
- In a large pitcher, add all ingredients except for the sparkling water and Stella Rosa Black;
stir gently with a large spoon.
- Pour in the sparkling water, and top off with Stella Rosa Black.
- Serve chilled.
- 2 oz. bourbon (Maker’s Mark is a top seller and is available in most Walgreens stores where spirits are sold)
- ¾ oz. lemon juice
- ¾ oz. simple syrup
- Garnish with cherry and orange
- Combine bourbon, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker.
- Fill shaker with ice, cover and shake vigorously, about 20 seconds.
- Strain cocktail and pour into a rocks glass filled with ice.
- Garnish with cherry and orange slice.
Walgreens encourages you to please drink responsibly.