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The Control States

A close look at an important segment of the alcohol industry

header_logoThe National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) is the national association representing the Control State Systems – those jurisdictions that directly control the distribution and sale of beverage alcohol within their borders. There are 17 member jurisdictions, 16 states and Montgomery Co, Maryland and they control 24% of US spirits volume.

Additionally, there are municipalities in Minnesota and South Dakota that act as retailers and there are three other smaller

The control state jurisdictions (in blue).
The control state jurisdictions (in blue).

counties in Maryland that are also considered control jurisdictions.

Last week NABCA held it’s 78th annual conference.

In some states, liquor stores are state-run and basically in the retail business (e.g., Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Utah, New Hampshire). In many, the states are the “wholesaler” and appoint agents (private businesses) to run the retail business (e.g., Maine, Ohio, Vermont). There are a number of other variations but the common denominator is that the state government in these jurisdictions is in the alcohol business.

Until a few years ago there were 18, then the State of Washington voted to privatize and that’s where our story begins.

What has been the result in Washington?

I recently spoke to a friend in Seattle and asked him what changes have resulted from privatizing the liquor business. My friend’s politics are such that I wasn’t surprised by his response that “government doesn’t belong in private enterprise.” I next asked him what happened to the prices of spirits in his state. He said he wasn’t sure and thought they went up. Then revealed that he buys his liquor in Oregon (a Control State) because it’s much cheaper.

In fact, according to an article in The Seattle Times last June:

Many saw privatization as a win for business, government and the public… The state would get more revenue from newly imposed fees. And consumers would get cheaper, more widely available booze.

Well, most of that happened: A nearly $1 billion business is in private hands, the state has enjoyed a short-term revenue windfall, and liquor is ubiquitous. But on average it’s not cheaper, and certainly not perceived as such.

KREM TV in a story earlier this year reported that the state now has the highest prices in the country.

In Washington, a gallon of alcohol costs about $35. Compare that to two years ago when it cost $27 before it was privatized. Washington’s liquor prices are currently the highest in the country and cost $25 more than what it would cost just a few miles away in Idaho.

The winner in Washington is Costco, not the consumer. Unless of course, you want to buy one of their limited selection brands in gigundous sizes.

Control State confusion

Over the years, I’ve always felt that misconceptions abounded when it came to attitudes toward the control states. So I check with two former Seagram colleagues about the system. One was Steve Bellini, EVP Business Intelligence/Trade Development at Sidney Frank Import Co. and my former (and last) boss at Seagram. The other was Gregg Mineo, a Seagram and Absolut alumni and currently Director, Maine Bureau of Alcohol Beverages and Lottery Operations.

Both confirmed my view of the past. Once upon a time, the control states were run by political appointees whose knowledge of business in general and the spirits industry in particular was minimal. Gregg and Steve agree that the situation has appreciably changed. If it was ever true in the first place.

Further, suppliers (other than Seagram I might add) did not understand the control state structure and how to operate in that world. Everyone knew how to go to a distributor and beat him over the head but presenting to a control state board was uncharted waters for most.

Besides – and here comes my jaded perspective – when you need to make a “number” you can poke your finger in a wholesaler’s chest but can’t do that with a commissioner or director. You can load a wholesaler with merchandise if you have the clout; you can’t do that with a control state.

By the way, I just read this in Wine and Spirits Daily

Control States represent 45% of Diageo’s group earnings before interest, tax (EBIT), per Morgan Stanley.

Why I love control states

Education Awards Program Report
Education Awards Program Report

When I ran market research, I always felt that the data provided by NABCA was the most accurate snapshot of consumer behavior or ‘takeaway.’ DISCUS numbers were important but dealt with sales to wholesalers. Nielsen data is consumer driven but is limited to 10% of the market and extrapolated for a holistic view.

As a result, when I ran new products, I always wanted a control state market as part of my test markets because I felt that the feedback would be more indicative of the product’s potential. Further, I was able to more easily determine the impact of programming and strategy with the information I received.

Today, I’m happy about the control states system because they provide easier entry points for smaller brands (think craft and other startups) and these brands are likely to be given a fair chance to get off the ground if there’s a reasonable amount of support by the supplier. Not to mention giving consumers a wide range of choices.

So, there are many reasons to be a fan of the control state system.

Meet Jim Sgueo

Mr. Sgueo is the President and CEO of NABCA and has been with the association for over 40 years and served in various capacities including, Systems Analyst, Director of Statistical Operations and Deputy Director. When you ask Steve Bellini about him, be prepared for a long, glowing series of comments such as “He is one of the industry’s unsung heroes… Humble but extremely knowledgeable and a real driver behind moving the control states forward.”

Gregg Mineo is no less effusive. He cites example after example of how, under Jim’s leadership, the association has become more sophisticated and more effective in providing information and education to its members.

Jim Sgueo President and CEO of NABCA
Jim Sgueo President and CEO of NABCA

I spoke to Jim and was not surprised to learn that he has indeed been at the forefront of change. He points out that in the distant past, state commissioners might have been political appointees without strong business skills. Since the 1980s, Governors have appointed directors and commissioners with general and alcohol business experience. Many of these directors have transformed their agencies and implemented 21st century business practices. This is the new generation of control state leadership that NABCA is geared to.

Here’s the part I like the most…

Those data resources I mentioned? The proceeds of the sale of that information go back to its membership in the form of education grants, research, the conference and other activities.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many associations that use the proceeds from selling information to fund activities.

Despite his many years at NABCA, Jim Sgueo strikes me as a man that doesn’t rest on his laurels and is open to change and adaptation.

I know many business executives that could use those attributes. So the next time you hear discussion about privatizing a control state because government ‘intervention’ in the market is wrong, just tell them to look at Washington. And, to realize that control states are moving more and more to balancing commercial interests with their regulatory role.

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Vodka’s Journey: The Bumpy Road Ahead

Is the largest spirit category in the US heading for tough times?

15663595_mlDespite the massive size of the vodka market at 70 million 9-liter cases, there are signs that the rate of growth will steadily decline in the years ahead. If nothing else, all products have life cycles (think bell-shaped curve) and tastes and preferences are subject to change over time. After all, what got vodka to its height in the first place were the changing preferences away from whiskies. Now, it’s Whiskey’s turn to move back into favor. But, that’s only part of the story.

Vodka History

Who invented vodka is the subject of some debate – the Russians, Swedes or Poles – it really doesn’t matter for this analysis, so let’s fast forward to the US and the post WWII period.

Prior to the 1960s, whiskies (imported or domestic) were dominant with a smattering of gin preferences. Many distillers at the time looked down their noses at vodka, partly because “odorless, colorless and tasteless” was not in the distiller’s blending art and, partly because it was seen as the alcohol preference of excessive drinkers. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the Smirnoff (or was it Popov) ad slogan “leaves you breathless” was a signal to have a drink anytime/anyplace and no one will know.

By the 1970s preferences among drinkers began to change in favor of vodka thanks to: James Bond, changing tastes of women (preferring mixable, sweet drinks), drinkers who wanted the effect of alcohol without the “silent shudder” and the emergence of interesting and fun concoctions (cocktails, such as the Moscow Mule).

The 1980s and 1990s brought further accelerated growth with vodka cocktails (think Sex and The City) and the advent and growth of imported 9924372_mlbrands led by Absolut and it’s advertising. At the beginning of this period there were only a handful of imports, most notably Stoli, Finlandia and Absolut. But, a number of important factors changed the picture.

In the 1980s, based on Russian misadventures (Korean Airline, Olympic boycotts, etc), Absolut benefitted from the Stoli boycott and the door was open to other imports. In the mid 90s, brands like Ketel One and Grey Goose taught the consumer that super and ultra premium vodka brands were worth paying for. At the same time, flavored vodkas began to make their presence known and further changed the category.

The Flavor explosion

At first, the flavors had some meaning and a strategic role to play. Want to enhance the flavor of a drink, choose citrus vodka; make that Bloody Mary zing, choose spicy vodka; and so on. Gradually the ‘simplistic’ flavors gave way to the exotic – mango, strawberry, apple, peach, vanilla and so on.

By the 2000s, the flavors took hold and gradually moved from exotic to the ridiculous – marshmallow, whipped cream, sorbet, cake, candy, bacon, salmon and other flavors that, as the saying goes, I wouldn’t drink with your mouth.

While this senselessness was going on, another factor entered the market – the low priced imported segment. Brands like Svedka, Sobieski, Wodka and others basically said to the consumer, “Hey, you’ve been overpaying; here’s imported quality at a low price.”

The net result of the “tutti frutti” flavors and inexpensive brands has been to churn the market and create confusion. Both among the trade, stuck with dozens of fad flavors and brands, and consumers, who face a dizzying array of choices.

Where is it all heading?

The storm clouds on the horizon are coming from two main directions – craft products and whiskey and even a combination of the two.

Ironically, whiskey (particularly American) originally defeated by vodka, has come back and with a vengeance. From 2012 to 2013, the rate of whiskey’s growth was two and a half times faster than all vodka including flavored. Leading the whiskey charge were flavored whiskeys (the sweetness factor again); interest in unique cocktails (traditional and new) and mixologist skills; and the craft, small batch explosion.

Whiskies of all types have begun to capture the drinking imagination of consumers regardless of age or gender. They’re fun to talk about, to drink and to identify with – whether bourbon corn, rye, or malt – they represent serious products and an understanding that, unlike vodka, they require skill that is more than turning on a tap.

Tito's Vodka
Tito’s Vodka

Enter the craft or small batch phenomenon. Not only is it fueling the whiskey growth, it’s also impacting the vodka category. Take a brand like Tito’s for example; it’s grown by over 40% compounded in the last five years, based largely on its “Hand Crafted” claim. Although, I wish someone could explain to me how you are hand crafted at nearly 1.5 million 9-liter cases.

Nevertheless, the craft concept, claim or whatever, is also becoming a factor in vodka with micro distilleries and the anti-filtration movement that’s just beginning. (By the way, the “unfiltered” vodka approach makes me chuckle… we’ve gone from filtered over charcoal, lava rocks, precious minerals and vestal virgins during a full moon to what, straight from the still?)

Our vodka
Our/Vodka Detroit

I think the Big Boys are starting to take notice of the vodka evolution. What choice do they have other than watch their sales go down and miss their bonuses. Take Absolut’s Elyx for example. It’s billed as “the single estate handcrafted vodka.” Other than marketing hype, I have no idea what they are trying to say about the brand. I think it has something to do with copper stills and an offbeat “global creative director.”

Also, Pernod Ricard’s Absolut is going into the micro distillery business and opening local distilleries around the world including Seattle, Detroit, London, Melbourne and others. It’s called Our/Vodka and supposedly the uniqueness of the concept will return the brand to its glory days. Good luck with that.

Grey Goose VX
Grey Goose VX

Finally, Bacardi’s Grey Goose is introducing Grey Goose VX, which “contains Cognac created from grapes from the Grande Champagne cru.” It’s currently only available at Travel Retail outlets, probably as a market test of the viability. According to The Spirits Business, “Bacardi has claimed Grey Goose VX (which stands for vodka exceptionelle) is a “significant step change for the vodka/white spirits category”.

So look for more churn in the vodka market in the years ahead. The growth will decelerate as the crazy flavors are put out to pasture (or wherever errant products go) and the competition from outside the category heats up.

The response from the vodka companies will be interesting to track. I can’t help but think of the expression, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”


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Cider, The Next Big Thing…Really?

Ad Age, Buffalo Trace Newsletter, Wine and Spirits Daily, Shanken News Daily and others have all had stories about Cider and its potential as the next “craft” brew.

At first I thought – no way. Cider (Hard Cider that is) has been around for centuries and never caught on. Most people I know who have come here from the UK, sooner or later miss Cider and wonder why Americans don’t drink it. I don’t know why that is – no acquired taste for it; perceptions that it’s too sweet; dislike of apple juice; confusion about what it is; just because it’s not in consumers’ frame of reference. There are lots of reasons.

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