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A field report from the beer aisle at Walmart

Beer aisle at Walmart

Standing in the beer aisle at Walmart last week I tried to imagine a time when I might see a bottle of Orval or even Goose Island Matilda sitting in the cooler. Not there yet.

I went to Walmart out of curiosity. First, there were a series of stories last month about Walmart getting serious about selling more alcoholic beverages, obviously including beer.

… we do learn that Walmart hosted 500 representatives from the alcohol industry at its Sam’s Club auditorium in Arkansas for a little adult beverage get-together last September. At the Summit, the company’s executives proved to alcohol buyers how serious they were about increasing Walmart’s share in the beer market — and that means doubling its adult beverage sales by 2016.

Then the story resurfaced last week with with a Bloomberg report that Walmart “is so committed to becoming America’s biggest beer retailer that it has been selling Budweiser, Coors and other brews almost at cost in at least some stores.” Alan McLeod had a bit to say, and then even more. He also pointed to a related Beer Advocate discussion.

I found myself wondering if where a beer is sold matters a hill of beans. Despite generally overthinking “beer from a place” this is something I had not really considered. Where’s it is consumed, in situ, sure. But not where it is bought. That’s how I ended up at Walmart. I didn’t come to any conclusions, but now I feel up to date. I already stuck a note on the corkboard I’m looking at as I type, reminding myself to revisit by the first week of December to see if anything has changed.

It was more interesting because I also stopped at my local grocery store, Schnucks, on the way home and took more notes. Schnucks has an excellent beer selection, most of it kept in coolers. While the Walmart selection isn’t as broad as at a gas station in Fulton, Missouri, I ducked into recently, Schnucks has plenty of Firestone Walker beers, Left Hand, Ommegang, Green Flash, and so on. Plus a fine selection from more than a half dozen local breweries.

Boulevard Smokestack beers at Walmart

Boulevard Tank 7The price at Walmart includes the cost per ounce, making comparisons easy. At Walmart, at least now, this is mostly a matter of comparing packs of 6, 12, 18, 24 and 30. But — for those who don’t have the Beer Cost Calculator app on their phone that a 750ml bottle of Tank 7 from Boulevard costs 33.9 cents per ounce while a 4-pack of Tank 7 costs just 18.7 cents per ounce could be a revelation. The 750 of Tank 7 costs $8.47 at Walmart and $8.99 at Schnucks (the 4-packs $8.97 and $10.99, with a note at Schnucks that was .70 off the regular price — I usually pay $10.99 at my local beer store).

Will Walmart soon sell more 4-packs, 750ml bottles, maybe 500ml (Urban Chestnut Brewing packages its beer in 500s, in 4-packs and 8-packs)? That’s the implication of these various stories.

Some other observations: a 12-pack of Kräftig Light cans was on sale for $8.97 at Walmart and $9.99 at Schnucks, compared to $10.97 for Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. Kräftig was founded by Billy Busch — yes, one of those heirs — who is promising he will eventually build a very larger brewery in St. Louis. Meanwhile the beer is brewed under contract in Wisconsin. It’s an all-malt beer that does very well is various tastings.

Both Coors Light and Miller Lite 30-packs sell for $17.35 at Walmart at $17.97 at Schnucks. Bud Light Select and Budweiser are both $18.37/$18.35 (Walmart is always listed first).

Samuel Adams Boston Lager (12-pack) is $12.88 at Walmart, $13.99 at Schnucks, while the New Belgium Folly Pack is $12.47/$14.99. Stella Artois is $12.47/$15.99, and Heineken $12.47/$11.99. Schlafly Pale Ale 12-packs are $11.47/$11.99, and the Sample Packs $13.47/$11.99.

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10 Responses to A field report from the beer aisle at Walmart

  1. Craig H. September 23, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    IMO, the retailer is *hugely* important, Stan.

    Most folks make a choice while standing at the beer cooler or while looking at the beer list. Those of us reading this blog might be more likely to seek out another retailer when we want a specific beer or a wider choice, but most American beer buyers choose from what is there before them, without research or too much thought. American bars and stores that carry great beer are my personal heros – they have made the beer revolution possible.

    -Craig

    • Stan Hieronymus September 23, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

      The coolers at Walmart are opposite each other (the one behind me has 30 packs of Pabst selling for less than 4 cents and ounce).

      At Schnucks beer occupies a very long wall. A wall of wine is on the other side of the aisle. This seems to encourage much more browsing.

      • Oliver Gray September 24, 2013 at 7:50 am #

        Almost all of the large stores that sell beer near me have a beer apartheid in effect; all of the macro beer is stacked in massive factory-esque cubes on one side of the store, while the craft is all nicely lined up in colorful cardboard arrays, sometimes by state or style, almost like an art gallery of beer.

        It’s quite the juxtaposition, and I think it says a lot about what each market thinks of its customer base.

        • Stan Hieronymus September 24, 2013 at 10:13 am #

          Oliver – Where do they put Blue Moon and Shock Top?

          • Oliver Gray September 25, 2013 at 9:35 am #

            Depends on the store. At the tiny little beer and wine place across from my house, it’s with the Yuengling, Stella, and Guinness, only one cooler away from the Bud Light.

            At Shopper’s food, it’s sitting right next to all the craft.

            At Total Wine it sits in a weird limbo, not quite with the macro, not quite with the craft, sort of having an existential crisis in terms of marketing.

  2. Pivní Filosof September 23, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    The “supporting small businesses” thing is something that you hear very often among regular consumers of alternative beers. It’s a noble thing to do, no doubt, but I have long wondered, what is more ethical then, buying craft beer from Wal-Mart or macro beer from a neighbourhood grocery strore?

    • Stan Hieronymus September 24, 2013 at 4:57 am #

      Of course, here in St. Louis Budweiser (Bud Light, Shock Top) is a local beer. Didn’t see Beck’s Sapphire but that’s also brewed in St. Louis.

    • Oliver Gray September 24, 2013 at 7:59 am #

      I’m torn on this idea. I do agree that supporting the “local, small business” is the ideal we should all aim for, but when their 6-pack is several dollars more than a big-box down the street, my ethical zeal falters. I rarely by macro, so I’m not really qualified to add anything there.

      I think if you really want to ethically support the breweries and the local economy, you should go to said breweries. Get some growlers filled, go to their brew pub if they have one, buy from them direct. The cost is usually lower, and you don’t have to lose your hard earned money to the middle man of transportation and marketing. Well, not lose as much.

  3. Alan September 24, 2013 at 6:02 am #

    Creepy. Like looking in the mirror and Stan looks back!

    I have always had an interest in how retailing works as I was raised by a shop keeper and, also, have access to so many sets of rules in the various jurisdictions within a drive from my house here in eastern Ontario. Plus, as most beer even good beer is consumed at home – not pubs, fests or at pairing dinners – it is an important factor in the overall trade but quiet overlooked.

  4. Gary Gillman September 24, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    I don’t care where I purchase beer as long as:

    i) the price is reasonable, or not unreasonable;

    ii) the beer is fresh.

    iii) they are selling a beer I want to buy in a SKU that is acceptable to me (I will never buy a case of anything unless magically I see one of Ballantine IPA in a remote New York beverage outlet).

    Walmart is fine, Costco is fine, gas station is fine, doesn’t matter.

    Gary

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