Travel retail in focus: Scotch whisky

30th September, 2016 by Kristiane Sherry

The no-age-statement debate is an old one in trade circles. But what do travel retail consumers really make of the shift, and has it ultimately paid off for the industry? SB takes a fresh look at the discussion.

numbers

Over the past seven years, retailers and suppliers alike have been shaking things up in Scotch

What’s your number? If you’re a bottle of Scotch sitting on-shelf in a travel retail store, it’s increasingly likely you won’t have one. Over the past seven years, a perfect storm of eye-wateringly narrow retail margins, stock shortages and a desire to differentiate from domestic assortments has seen retailers and suppliers alike shake things up in Scotch. Gone are the core expressions widely recognised in key markets, and in their place are travel retail exclusives – releases only available in the channel.

While these expressions tend to focus most on different taste experiences, for example, through cask finishes or brand stories, more often than not these unfamiliar releases do not carry an age statement. At a time of great change for the duty- free industry in general – spirits sales slid 4.2% in value in 2015, according to IWSR figures – are no-age-statements (NAS) helping or hindering a sector longing for the good old days? And what do consumers make of NAS Scotches anyway?

For starters, it is important to look at the travel retail Scotch consumer of 2016. Who are they and why are they buying? A recent report from the Tax Free World Association (TFWA) and Counter Intelligence Retail revealed that only 20% of travel retail shoppers questioned see alcohol as a suitable gift – “so it’s important to emphasise the personal drinking and enjoyment element to consumers”, says Michael Cockram, marketing director global travel retail at Beam Suntory.

This outcome was a surprise – gifting has long been cited as a key purchasing driver in the channel. In one way, this is an advantage. With the “older is better” myth prevailing in enthusiast (not connoisseur)circles, to be seen to be giving a “lesser” gift in the absence of an age statement is no longer a business-critical concern. So is age even relevant at all?

Duncan Baldwin, regional director at Angus Dundee Distillers, argues: “In my experience in travel retail, and talking to shop managers and some consumers, the lack of age statements in general is not helpful. The age statement for most consumers is an easy-to-grasp guide in terms of what they are buying as a value- for-money purchase.”

Angus Dundee offers both age-statement and no-age-statement products in the channel, and sales continue to be healthy, Baldwin says. Is this the case for those who have taken a more gung-ho approach to adopting NAS?

Edrington is considered by many an NAS pioneer. The company launched its 1824 Series of NAS malts exclusively into the channel in 2009, and, according to Ryan Hill, managing director of Asia Travel Retail, this helped create an “extremely differentiated assortment”.“The move to NAS whiskies was seen by many as a bold one, but we believe
there are far more important elements than age when it comes to determining quality,” Hill says.

For him, Edrington’s TR consumers are often the same people the company targets domestically, so there is no difference between the levels of understanding. Moreover, the shift to NAS “has resonated extremely well with consumers.”

William Grant & Sons perhaps occupies the middle ground. Like Angus Dundee, it has both NAS and age-statement expressions available in travel retail. The supplier underwent a period of differentiation four years ago when it launched the Glenfiddich Cask Collection, a TR-exclusive NAS line, which “removed the need for some core expressions… and these were withdrawn from travel retail”, says Ed Cottrell, managing director TR at William Grant & Sons. With the expanded offer, “sales continued to grow year-on-year”.

Despite this, “age is very influential in the purchasing decision”, Cottrell concedes. “In the consumers’ minds, age is an indicator of quality, the general consensus being that the older the whisky, the better the quality and therefore worth paying more for.”

glenfiddich

William Grant underwent a period of differentiation when it launched the Glenfiddich Cask Collection

It is this value perception, or lack of it, that is a particular danger for brands peddling NAS releases. Gifting might not be high on the Scotch purchaser’s agenda, but value- for-money certainly is.

Andre de Almeida, managing director for global travel retail at Loch Lomond Group, and blogger at InsideTheCask.com, says: “The actual fact is that consumers expect to find an authentic product with a strong value perception in travel retail stores.”

He argues that the age statement is just part of a long list of variables thatconsumers use to determine value, along with price, brand, packaging, provenance, “craft” and others. “Therefore the age statement is just one element, and more critically, travel retail stores via their staff need to ensure that they can deliver on other variables to surpass consumer expectations.”

It is not just retailers that need to get smart in order to communicate the concept of value in the absence of an age statement. Marketing teams still need to step up, too. But the key is to do it meaningfully – fluff won’t cut it.

Bernard Gormley, co-founder of Nude Brand Creation, agrees: “The images on the bottle, the words on the bottle, everythinghas to work much harder. It’s about finding truths about the Scotch […] and always thinking about the consumer, particularly in the travel retail environment.”

William Grant has done this with its NAS Cask Collection through the introduction of fractional sizes. Via 20cl variants and a 3x20cl pack, the company has tapped into a purchasing need, thus boosting the value perception of an NAS range.

the-macallan

Edrington released The Macallan Rare Cask Black at the TFWA World Exhibition in 2015

While ‘value’ rarely means ‘cheap’ to a consumer, NAS expressions are perhaps at odds with the premiumisation drive seen in the channel. De Almeida adds a note of caution: “We need to be careful that premiumisation is not taken too far in the drinks category, or Scotch whisky more specifically, at the risk of losing relevance to our consumer base.”

For him, NAS expressions play a role in widening the options available to consumers outside the often – but not always – more expensive age-statement releases.

However Edrington’s Hill thinks NAS releases are able to hold ground higher up the pricing structure. The company released The Macallan Rare Cask Black at the TFWA World Exhibition in 2015. The liquid itself has a subtly smoky flavour profile, clearly differentiated from other expressions from the distillery.

“Rare Cask Black contributed significantly to the strong performance of The Macallan in travel retail since its launch, helping the brand grow by 11% during 2015-16,” he says. “It’s also now the number one seller in single malt above US$300.”

Despite Edrington’s successes, for now most suppliers seem keen to maintain an age-statement offer alongside NAS expressionsin the channel. William Grant’s Cottrell says: “We will continue to produce single malts that feature an age statement, and sometimes they won’t. In our view, the role of age is a key and hugely important factor in the purchase decision – however, other roles do come into play.”

Similarly Beam Suntory, while it has reaped rewards with its lines for the Laphroaig, Bowmore and Ardmore NAS ranges, promises a “bold return to age statements” at the 2016 TFWA World Exhibition next month.

But looking to the future, will this tentative balance between age statements and
NAS expressions hold? Greg Dillon, luxury spirits brand consultant and writer at GreatDrams.com, perhaps summed it up best at the recent Luxury Spirits Masters: “New-to-market consumers won’t have the hang-up about age that existing ones do.” Keeping both sets happy in the meantime is the tricky task faced by brands and retailers alike.

While it feels an eon since Chivas Brothers ran its Age Matters campaign, many consumers
still see the sentiment behind the (age) statement – for now at least.

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