Now the game has changed, with consumers demanding better value. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the consumer price index plunged by 4.7 per cent in the year to May, though not everyone has been cutting prices.
The average price of a soft drink is 2 per cent less than a year ago, but the price of beer is 4.5 per cent higher, while in the CSO’s wine and cider category prices are 2.6 per cent higher.
Some of this is down to tax increases but it is also the case that drinks companies and publicans have become used to regularly jacking up their prices.
Drinkers are fed up with the bilking, so much so that the latest data shows that sales volumes in bars have plummeted by 9.4 per cent in the past year.
The first big brand to respond to this alarming trend is Bulmers cider, which recently announced a 10 per cent reduction in the price of its pint bottle product sold in pubs. The price cut marks a shift in strategy by the owner of Bulmers, CC Group, which is under new management.
A few years ago, Bulmers was the poster story for how a cheap and cheerful brand could be transformed by nice packaging and a lot of advertising.
Under Maurice Pratt, CC secured a premium price for Bulmers, sank some of the enormous profits into television advertising and delivered a huge surplus for shareholders. But over the past year, sales of bottled drinks have fallen by 5 per cent and, in that category, Bulmers has been losing market share.
The marketing challenge for CC is to square the circle of promoting a price cut for a premium brand while still trying to maintain the premium values of the brand. Michael Merrins, commercial managing director at Bulmers, says moving away from the premium pricing strategy “was a very big decision”.
“During the height of the Celtic Tiger, most people didn’t even look at their receipts,” he says. “Now there is a greater awareness of price and, in a lot of pubs, a pint bottle of Bulmers costs more than a fiver. In all our research over the last five years about what’s good and bad about our product, price was never an issue. But it is now, as it is for everybody. There is a demand from consumers to cut prices. The negativity around price is very apparent.”
He adds: “We would like to think this price reduction will bring the cost of the pint bottle below a fiver. We will still only be in line with other premium brands but not as expensive as we were.”
Though Bulmers has cut its wholesale price to publicans by 10 per cent, there is no guarantee that pub owners will pass on all the savings to drinkers. Part of the aim of the advertising announcing the price cut is to ensure pub customers know about it.
CC has also been rolling out Bulmers Pear, which is eating up most of the advertising budget at the expense of the cider product.
Merrins admits Bulmers cider drinkers have been migrating to the pear beverage, but says sales of the latter are exceeding expectations.