Retail rally tipped to flow on to liquor

Australians are starting to spend big again, with the sales of fridges and washing machines returning to healthy levels, and the news could not be better for Australia's liquor industry.

Australians are starting to spend big again, with the sales of fridges and washing machines returning to healthy levels, and the news could not be better for Australia's liquor industry.

It's called the Harvey Norman test. When consumers start spending again on large whitegoods, it is a good indicator that there is a healthy pick-up in spending that will flow into other retail businesses - such as bottle shops.

So, according to consumer analyst company Nielsen, the bubbly should be popping at last week's news that Harvey Norman is returning to sales growth in its core Australian business.

"This supports our view that the cycle is improving and the worst is behind us," said retail analysts from Morgan Stanley of the retailer's March quarter sales report.

Nielsen Pacific's executive director of consumer and business intelligence, Michael Walton, said of the change in spending behaviour: "We're now comfortable to spend again but we are more likely to spend within our means."

The ripple of spending is expected to drive growth in off-premise liquor outlets back to healthy levels and add $1.7 billion in sales over the next three years, according to Nielsen figures. But the growth will be driven by people spending more money on higher-priced liquor rather than filling their fridges with VB, which has just returned to being the nation's favourite brew.

"Our prediction is the single biggest factor for driving growth the next three years will be 'trading up' behaviour, followed by price increases," Mr Walton said.

Volume growth for off-premise liquor sales will be negligible but it will still be a welcome respite from the declines recorded over the previous five years.

Nielsen said there were too many deep-seated trends against volume growth in bottle shop sales, like the slow decline of cask wine. Australia's most popular beer brands, such as VB and XXXX, are also struggling as people spend more money on smaller volumes of craft beer and international beer brands.

It is showing up in the numbers. Of the $1.7 billion growth in sales expected over the next three years, about $500 million of this increase will be spent on beer - most of it on craft brews and premium imported beers.

Nielsen is forecasting that $1 of every $6 spent on packaged liquor will go on premium imported beer alone.

Cider will also continue its ascendancy, adding $400 million in sales over the next three years, which means imported beers and cider will make up more than half the sales growth.

While the international liquor groups are trying to keep abreast of these trends and buy into growth areas - the most recent example being Japanese brewer Asahi acquiring the Cricketers Arms beer brand this week - they are expected to lose out to smaller, Australian operators such as Coopers.

"We keep making this assumption that all of our industries are consolidating but, in this industry, it is actually fragmenting," Mr Walton said.

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