Cheaper Than Water? Retailers Try to Unload Bud Light.


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On a recent steamy Sunday afternoon, customers strolled through the aisles of Glenn Miller’s Beer & Soda Warehouse, where overhead fans circulated the hot air.

People heading to picnics, graduation parties and other get-togethers in Lemoyne, a Pennsylvania community just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, breezed into the store, passing myriad displays of beers, with cases of top brands stacked high.

Next to 30-packs of Miller Lite, on sale for $24.99, sat a stack of Bud Light. A large banner above it noted that, after a rebate, a 30-pack cost a mere $8.99.

Andy Wagner, the manager and an 18-year veteran of the store, said the Miller Lite was selling well. And the Bud Light? Not so much.

“At this point, it’s cheaper than some of the cases of water we’re selling in the back,” Mr. Wagner said, noting that sales of Bud Light at the store since mid-April were down 45 percent from a year ago. “It’s just not moving like it used to.”

Nearly three months after the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a video on her Instagram account to promote a Bud Light contest, setting off online outrage from the right and a boycott, the beer brand is still struggling to win back loyal, longtime customers.

For more than two decades, Bud Light was the best-selling beer in the United States. Its sales exceeded $5 billion last year, roughly 9 percent of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s revenue. But since the boycott, Bud Light has been dethroned by Modelo Especial. In the four weeks that ended in mid-June, the volume of Bud Light sold nationally plunged an average of 29 percent from a year earlier, according to data from the research firm NIQ, analyzed by the consulting firm Bump Williams.

Anheuser-Busch’s stock has also dropped more than 15 percent since early April. The company did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In an interview on Wednesday with “CBS Mornings,” Brendan Whitworth, the chief executive of Anheuser-Busch North America Zone, acknowledged that the last few weeks had been “challenging” for the brand.

“The conversation surrounding Bud Light has moved away from beer,” Mr. Whitworth said, adding that he took responsibility for the controversy’s impact on the company’s employees, customers and distribution partners. “The conversation has become divisive, and Bud Light really doesn’t belong there.”

When asked if he would run the campaign with a transgender influencer again, Mr. Whitworth didn’t directly respond.

“There’s a big social conversation taking place right now, and big brands are right in the middle of it,” he said. “And it’s not just our industry or Bud Light. It’s happening in retail. It’s happening in fast food.

“And so for us, what we need to understand is, deeply understand and appreciate, is the consumer and what they want, what they care about and what they expect from big brands.”

With the summer sales season well underway — the four months between May and August make up as much as 40 percent of annual beer sales — the question swirling around Bud Light is whether the slump is temporary or the new normal.

“Here we are about 10 weeks into it, and we’re still seeing double-digit declines in volumes nationally,” said Bump Williams, who runs the consulting firm that bears his name. “This is no longer an anomaly. This is a trend of concern.”

Indeed, most larger beer distributors or wholesalers — middlemen who buy brands from brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors and then sell them to stores, restaurants and bars — believe the fallout will last more than six months, according to a survey released this month by the Wall Street investment bank Jefferies. A third of distributors believe the impact on Bud Light will be permanent.

Mr. Wagner said Anheuser-Busch had made a mistake when its marketing broke what he called “bar rules.” That means “no politics, no religion.” He noted that Glenn Miller’s had never allowed local politicians to put up signs in or around the store so as not to alienate customers.

When asked how long he thought the sales declines would linger, Mr. Wagner shrugged. “I’ve seen longtime Bud Light customers trying other beers,” he said. “If they find something they like, they may not come back.”

Beer distributors, many of them independent or family-owned businesses, are acutely aware of the drop in Bud Light sales.

Steve Tatum, the general manager of family-owned Bama Budweiser in Montgomery, Ala., paid for a local radio commercial to discuss the backlash to Bud Light. “We, too, at Bama Budweiser are upset about it and have made our feelings known to the top leadership at Anheuser-Busch,” Mr. Tatum said in the ad. He added that his company, an independent wholesaler, employed “around 100 people who live here, work here, and our children go to school here.”

Mr. Tatum did not respond to a request for comment.

Anheuser-Busch also seems to be trying to remind the public of the people behind the beer. On Wednesday, the company released an ad campaign, “We Make the Beer,” which focuses on the numerous steps involved in making beer, as well as the individuals behind the process. It has also hinted that it may bring back the popular Bud Knight character in advertising as part of its effort to move past the controversy.

The company has also been buying back or swapping out cases of Bud Light sitting in distributor warehouses when they reach their “best by” dates. In June, the company unveiled a multitiered plan to its distributors that included sales incentive payments and reimbursement for freight and fuel charges through the end of the year, according to Beer Business Daily.

For Glenn Miller’s, the repercussions from the Bud Light controversy have not had much of a business impact. Operating since 1986, the retailer sells 1,500 brands of beer in its 18,000-square-foot warehouse.

“So if a consumer decides against a Bud Light, which is now down 30 percent year to date, they are fine in finding something else to try,” Rodney Miller, the chief executive of Glenn Miller’s, said in an email. (Mr. Miller founded the retailer with his father, Glenn.)

Mr. Wagner echoed those sentiments as he walked through the store’s aisles.

“It’s not that they stopped drinking beer,” he said of his customers. “They just stopped buying Bud Light.”


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