What are We Drinking While On-Premise Is Off-Limits?

By Insights for Curious Marketers Archives
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About half of legal-age adults drink alcohol in the U.S., which did not change last year. However, the disruptions to social life during COVID-19 changed when and where we can imbibe. With cancelled business trips, postponed weddings, virtual birthday parties and restrictions in place for bars and restaurants, our on-premise consumption has been dramatically altered. So, how has our alcohol consumption changed as a result?

Disruption to our social lives changed where and when we drank alcohol this year, but what and how much we drank didn’t change as much. As suspected, restrictions to indoor dining – such as bans and limitations on capacity sizes -- led to a shift away from on-premise alcohol purchases at bars and restaurants over the past year. Two-thirds of alcohol buyers (65%) purchased alcohol on-premise in 2019; amid the pandemic, that share dropped to just under half (49%). That is both a huge loss to businesses and also an impressive retention of customers given the scale of limitations to on-premise consumption during the pandemic!

This decline in on-premise consumption is seen across all occasions for drinking, with an average decline of -41% across all occasions. With health officials discouraging social gatherings at home, we also see declines for many off-premise occasions for alcohol consumption, although the declines are less dramatic than on-premise. What moments didn’t experience a drop? More people drank while staying in with their partner/spouse, while alone, or for regular/everyday drinks (such as with meals).

We changed where and when we drink, but did we change how much we drink? Not really. Most legal-age Americans say the amount of alcohol they consume stayed the same or that they cut down on drinking, consistent with prior years. However, while they’re still the minority, we did see a small rise in 2020 in people who said they increased the amount of alcohol they consumed in the past year.

Looking at the average number of drinks per week, we also see a very small increase overall, but here the averages show an interesting story by age. With fewer on-premise and social drinking occasions, younger and older adults decreased their weekly consumption. On the flip side, adults 35-64 increased their consumption by almost a drink per week. It may be that along with the concerns that come with a health crisis, people in that age group may also be stressed from work and remote schooling if they are parents.

And did we change what we drink? Overall, there wasn’t dramatic change in what we drink at home. Beer and wine remain the most consumed drinks. There was a slight increase in hard seltzer, a continuation of the growth trend for this category. The big standout is whiskey (specifically whiskey other than bourbon and Scotch), which jumped up +18% versus last year. Whiskey’s increased appeal was apparently a universal trend in 2020 – all age groups contributed to the increase in whiskey consumption.

The pandemic forced us to make lifestyle changes almost overnight that altered the situations in which we drink, but our tastes and preferences have not been dramatically reshaped by the pandemic.

This is the heart of what marketers in all categories can learn from changes in our alcohol consumption this year – our behaviors are a marriage of situational influence and personal preference. Situational influence can change quickly and can be influenced by factors beyond personal control, while the personal preference is tied up in identity and the how-do-you-even-explain-it factor of each of us just liking what we like.

As we continue to navigate the new normal of life during COVID-19 and, eventually, begin to understand what changes we’ll bring with us on the other side of it, we need a balanced understanding of how consumer behaviors are shaped by both situational influence and personal preference.

The speed of change continues to accelerate, and the past year has thrown us some real curveballs! The right data can empower marketers more confidently navigate today and plan for tomorrow. I love to strategize and help -- contact me to see this data, and more, broken out for your target audience.

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