Thursday, March 24, 2011

Growth, choice & is there ever too much?

New Jersey added two craft breweries last year, a period in which the total number of US breweries jumped 8 percent and the percentage of production volume and sales dollars both rose by double digits for craft brewers, according to the craft beer industry's trade group.

Three months into 2011, one thing is certain: There's plenty of beer to slake any kind of thirst, a veritable cornucopia of styles, brands and flavors that for some has begun to raise the question of whether consumers are becoming overwhelmed by the Great Wall of Choice.

The short answer is sort of; the long answer is nope with a because. In fact, the abundance of choice, says Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, could buttress brand loyalty.

In a statement issued ahead of the Craft Brewers Conference, which kicked off Wednesday in San Francisco, the Colorado-based Brewers Association, says small and independent brewers produced 11 percent more volume last year over 2009 and saw retail sales dollars increase by 12 percent over 2009. That translates to growth of more than 1 million barrels of beer.

The number of craft brewers also rose from 1,587 in 2009 to 1,716 last year, reflecting the largest number of breweries in the US since the turn of the 20th century. (There were 1,759 breweries operating last year, when you include the non-craft ones.)

"Prohibition caused a dramatic decline in the number of breweries in the United States, but the number of breweries is now at an all-time high," says BA director Paul Gatza. "With well over 100 new brewery openings in 2010, plus 618 breweries in planning stages, all signs point to continued growth for the industry."

In the Garden State, production brewer New Jersey Beer Company (North Bergen) and Port 44 Brew Pub (Newark) launched their brands last year, raising the state's craft brewery count to 20. Meanwhile, four applications for production brewery licenses were pending before state regulators at the end of last year.

That's good news to anyone who thinks the more choices, the better. Like Pat Vaccaro, a Rutgers University student from Long Branch, who talked craft beer recently while browsing a reasonably well-stocked (but not a chart-topper of selection) cold case at a Wegmans in Monmouth County.

Overwhelming? "Not at all," Pat says. "I've had 90 percent of what they have here. So long as it doesn't have fruit in it, I'll drink it."

Still there's this item in Beer Business Daily that wonders if the price paid for aisles and cold boxes teeming with craft brands is an exercise in diminished return.

Schwartz, the Swarthmore psych professor and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2004), by and large gives the beer industry a pass from his premise that a plethora of choices turns consumers off, makes them unable to chose, and when they manage to do so, they're nagged by the thought that they perhaps didn't actually make the best choice after all.

The reason beer gets an exemption: choosing a brew – sixpack or single bottle – from the wall of eye-popping labels, and picking one you're ultimately unhappy with, is an error that's easy to correct, easy to move beyond given the lower price than a car, computer or clothes. Plus, with those latter items there's the expectation of keeping them for a while.

However, Schwartz, who discussed the topic during a phone interview last week, says the hyper array of beer choices could end up favoring well-known or familiar brands (or beers that have the most engaging packaging or labels for that matter). Opting for the familiar is a way of dealing with a problem that seemingly can't be solved, steering away from a random choice.

"Nothing will bring brand loyalty back faster than a proliferation of options," he says.

1 comment:

Tara Nurin said...

Jeff, that's such an informative and well-researched article. Thank you! I learned a lot.