Spirited time for sales: Purchases of alcoholic products tend to spike at year's end

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Posted: Friday, December 27, 2013 12:00 am

During the winter holidays, specialty retailers and grocery stores keep the spirits bright — and profits up — by keeping their beer, wine and spirit sections well-stocked.

The last three months of the year, October through December, account on average for up to 35 percent of the total annual sales of wine and spirits, said Jeff Solsby, spokesman for Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc., a national trade organization. The super sales season is “known as 'O-N-D,' ” Solsby said.

Beer sales also bubble up in the late fall and winter, according to a recent Nielsen survey. While the Fourth of July takes first place for holiday beer sales, the days leading up to Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and Super Bowl Sunday are among the eight top-ranked holidays in terms of beer sales, according to Nielsen, a consumer research firm.

In the greater Omaha area, the three-month spike in the sale of beer, wine and spirits typically begins not in October but November and extends through January, local retailers say.

West Des Moines-based Hy-Vee, which operates 25 supermarkets in Nebraska — 14 in greater Omaha, including two in Council Bluffs — begins to see a spike in the sale of beer, wine and spirits in mid-November.

“It's our biggest time of the year for sales,” said Ruth Comer, the grocery retailer's spokeswoman. “It starts just prior to Thanksgiving and goes through the Super Bowl. ... Those two holidays bookend the season.”

Wine for holiday meals and hosts, sparkling wines and champagnes for parties, and liqueurs that mix with coffee, hot chocolate or eggnog fly off the shelves during the holidays. Beer, typically the libation of choice during football season, never goes out of favor, but sales amplify during the football playoffs and Super Bowl season, Comer said.

Gift givers also look to Hy-Vee's shelves to add a bottle of wine or two to gift baskets that feature fruit and cheese, Comer said.

At Spirit World, a gourmet deli and specialty wine, beer and liquor store at 7517 Pacific St., sales take a big jump in December, owner Laurie Wolford said. “November is good ... sales bump up 50 percent, but our December sales are generally double to triple other months.”

Spirit World, which employs 12 to 15 part-time and full-time workers year-round, boosts its staff to keep up with the increased demand, adding three seasonal hires, Wolford said.

During the holidays, customers gravitate toward single-malt Scotches, red blend wines, sometimes labeled meritage, and sweet wines such as riesling (a white wine) and moscato, another sweet wine available in red and white, Wolford said.

Customers also raise their price point, choosing higher-priced wines, whiskeys, beers and ciders.

“Across the board, we sell more higher-end products,” Wolford said. “People take a step up from what they normally spend. If they normally spend $8 for a bottle of wine, now they spend $15 to $20 or more.”

Year-over-year tax revenue returns on beer, wine and spirits have increased for at least the last three years, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission's monthly tax revenue records.

For example, this November the commission collected about $2.7 million in revenue on beer, wine and spirits, up more than 5 percent from the $2.56 million it collected last November. Revenue for November 2012 was up nearly 9 percent over the $2.35million the commission collected in November 2011.

Iowa's Alcoholic Beverages Division, which tracks annual wholesales of spirits, reported a similar trend. In fiscal 2013, with the year ending June 30, annual sales totaled more than $255million, up more than 5 percent over last year's annual sales of $242 million. The wholesale of spirits during 2012, in turn, represented a 9.5 percent increase over the 2011 total of $221 million.

Dan Matuszek, who owns and runs the two Brix locations at Village Pointe and Midtown Crossing, is yet another retailer who experiences an upswing in holiday sales.

“December is the wine-buying month,” Matuszek said.

Brix, a wine bistro and retail store, offers a premium selection of wine, beer, spirits and single-malt scotch. Brix opened its first location in the Village Pointe shopping center near 168th Street and West Dodge Road in January 2010. The Midtown Crossing store celebrates its first anniversary in January.

“Thanksgiving is the No. 1 wine holiday because everybody has it on the table,” Matuszek said. “And without a doubt, December is huge because of gift-giving.”

The bottom-line boost, he said, is the result of sales to “people who buy wine once a year that come out of the woodwork for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” and stepped-up purchases by regular wine buyers.

Infrequent buyers stock up on gifts and regular buyers buy more and typically spend more on their purchases than at other times of the year, Matuszek said. “They not only trade up for gifts, but they also trade up for things they buy for themselves.”

In recent years, sweet wines such as moscato and riesling have proved to be big sellers, Matuszek said.

And blended red wines are particularly popular as gifts, he said, because of their variety and mellow flavors.

“By law, for a wine to be called a chardonnay or cabernet or pinot, it has to be made from 75 percent of that type of grape,” he explained. “Blends give winemakers a lot of flexibility. They can blend certain grapes into a plethora of flavors. People who don't like super dry wines often find them sweeter, smoother and easier to drink,” Matuszek said.

Other popular purchases during the holidays include chardonnay, the always-popular white wine, and pinot noir, a light to medium-bodied red wine, which is lighter and fruitier than the deeper, drier red of cabernet. “Pinot noir is a good option for people that don't like the dry taste of tannins,” Matuszek said.

And for those who enjoy a bold, full berry-flavored wine, cabernet sauvignon “is still king.”

Pat Gobel, owner of Omaha fixture Dundee Dell near 50th and Underwood Streets, also described December as a “very good month.”

The popular restaurant, pub and whiskey watering hole offers an extensive selection of beer and wine, in addition to one of the largest single-malt Scotch whisky collections outside of Scotland.

The holiday crowds appear in late November, said Gobel, who has owned the Dell for 25 years. “We see lots of folks the night before Thanksgiving and on Thanksgiving night,” and the trend continues through December, he said. “The Dell's pretty steady year-round, but we see a marked increase in December, about 15 to 20 percent more than usual.”

Added Gobel: “It's not just sales that are up — everybody is happy. The mood is so much lighter and brighter.”

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