‘Good’ but ‘rollercoaster’ year for Champagne in UK

While the pandemic precipitated a sharp decline for Champagne sales in the UK, a post-lockdown comeback for the category proves the British taste for the fine French fizz has far from gone away, meaning it might be a “good” year for the region.

It’s been a rollercoaster year for Champagne. Picture source: Wikipedia (featuring the Luna Park in Melbourne)

If you want a single word that encapsulates the UK sales trends for Champagne in 2020, it is “rollercoaster”, as used this morning to describe this year by Andrew Hawes, chairman of the country’s Champagne Agents Association, as well as MD of Mentzendorff – the importer for Bollinger and Ayala Champagnes in the UK – during an exclusive interview with the drinks business.

Looking back over the course of 2020 so far, he recalled a “moderate” start to the year before the pandemic reached the UK, followed by a “very marked, brief, premium boom” in the retail sector, as news of impending covid lockdowns reached consumers, which “was like an extra Christmas” for Champagne sales, according to Hawes.

But when it turned out in late March that the coronavirus restrictions were here for the longer term, the market for the fizz became “grim”, with April seeing “probably the largest fall-off in Champagne sales ever; volumes were down 60%, as we entered a period when it was considered inappropriate to be purchasing and consuming Champagne – which lasted for a number of weeks.”

Then, as coronavirus restrictions were eased, and lockdowns lifted, Champagne sales saw a recovery, starting in May, before growing strongly in June, and stronger still in July and August, with the latter month notable for its level of sales in particular, with “booming” demand in restaurants and hotels in rural locations and retailers across the country.

Hawes explained, “What has been different about August this year is that generally a lot of money leaves the country as people go on holiday but [due to travel restrictions and quarantine laws] staycations have boosted the off-trade in August.”

Continuing he said, “For example, over the August bank holiday, you find that supermarkets do a lot of promotional activity, and they’ve done that this year, but it’s had a bigger impact as people have chosen to participate more in those promotions as they’ve been here [in the UK], rather than holidaying in Spain, Italy or somewhere else.”

And this has also had a marked affect on the restaurant sector too – albeit, those outlets beyond city centres.

“The on-trade is booming in the countryside, with outlets reopening to full capacity, or as much as they are allowed to, and it’s not just an August staycation thing, as countryside hotels have full occupancy into November,” he said.

This is benefitting Champagne he assured db, commenting, “Places are busy, and you are seeing a normal consumption pattens, people are not downgrading, and there is some upgrading as people have accumulated some money.”

However, for those places in the centre of cities, particularly the heart of London, “it’s still really difficult”, and, with a lot of places reopening this month, Hawes said that “September will be very important”.

Overall, Hawes expects to see a “stable” market for Champagne by the end of 2020, as the marked recovery offsets the dramatic declines see earlier this year.

We came into 2020 saying that Champagne was in a healthier state than had been presumed, it had been resilient; it was a good 2019… and we are set for a good 2020,” he said, adding, “But between then and now it has been a rollercoaster.”

Nevertheless, Hawes did acknowledge the importance of the Christmas trading period for the overall performance of Champagne in the UK in 2020.

“There is a question mark over the volume that will go through during Champagne’s key trading period, and that depends on how much it is a normal Christmas,” he said.

He continued, “If the Covid situation is looking better, then perhaps [Champagne sales] will be more positive, but if it worsens, then there will be a depressing impact, and we will know more about economic situation by this time, as the furlough scheme will have been unwound by then,” he said, stressing that as the viral threat lessens, the financial one may intensify.

Despite such uncertainty, he is still upbeat for Champagne in 2020. “We’ve experienced a lot already this year, and we’ve seen what April looks like in a full blown pandemic, so, assuming the UK is able to avoid returning to that gravity of situation, then the Champagne market has got strong, underlying resilience.”

 

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