Bud Light set to lose shelf space at major retailers, intensifying boycott woes

A nationwide reset of shelf space could solidify sales declines, analysts said.

September 15, 2023, 8:01 AM

A boycott against Bud Light has hammered sales for months, dethroning the brand as the nation's most popular beer and demonstrating the longevity of an anti-trans consumer movement that erupted in April.

Even more, a reset of shelf space that takes hold every fall at major retailers could solidify the sales declines and make it much more difficult for Bud Light to return to its performance before the boycott, according to ABC News' interviews with a former Anheuser-Busch executive, a local Bud Light wholesaler and beer industry analysts.

Bud Light is set to lose refrigerator space at a vast network of stores belonging to key beer sellers like Walmart and 7-Eleven, since the retailers typically reapportion shelf space based on recent sales performance, taking space away from struggling brands and giving it to hot-selling ones, the industry sources told ABC News.

"During a busy shopping period on a Friday or Saturday night, if you don't have the beer available cold on the shelf, consumers pick something else," former Anheuser-Busch InBev executive Anson Frericks told ABC News, calling shelf space "the single largest determinant of sales in a store."

"There will be a dramatic shift," Frericks added.

Sales of Bud Light have recorded declines for five consecutive months after a product endorsement from Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, sparked backlash among many conservatives.

The boycott gained momentum, meanwhile, after the initial response from the company was perceived as conciliatory to conservatives by some LGBTQ advocates, prompting frustration on the left.

Anheuser-Busch did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment, nor did Walmart or 7-Eleven.

Over a four-week period ending in early September, sales of Bud Light slid 27% compared to the same period a year prior, according to data from Bump Williams Consulting and Nielsen NIQ reviewed by ABC News.

Meanwhile, sales of rival brands have surged. During that same four-week period, Coors Light sales climbed 20% compared to a year ago; while sales of Yuengling's light lager jumped a staggering 80%, the data showed.

The disparate performance of Bud Light and its competitors will be reflected in the display changes made by retailers, leaving Bud Light at a disadvantage as it tries to recover lost sales, Dave Williams, vice president of analytics and insights at Bump Williams Consulting, told ABC News.

"There's explosive growth on one side and sharp decline on the other," Williams said. "This does have that ripple effect where if Bud Light loses space on the shelf, that could make it a longer-term endeavor to claw back to where they were if they're ever able to do that in the first place."

Typically, about 80% of beer sales take place at retailers or other locations where consumers take the product home; while 20% of sales occur at bars and restaurants where customers drink the product on site, according to a report from Beer Market Analysis.

In recent months, rival executives have trumpeted the potential benefits of shelf space changes at retailers.

Constellation Brands CEO Bill Newlands, whose company makes the newly top-selling Modelo brand, told investors on an earnings call in June that a change in retail displays "works to our advantage."

"Some of that is coming because of the growth and velocities that you're seeing on our brands," Newlands said. "But also the decrease that you've seen from some of our competitors."

The Bud Light logo is seen on a truck semitrailer, Oct. 21, 2022, in Maryland
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Molson Coors, the maker of Coors Light, held an earnings call last month during which CEO Gavin Hattersley said the company had already heard from nearly 20 top retailers saying that the company's brands would receive additional shelf space as part of the reset.

"We're working hard at making sure that shelf resets reflect the current reality in the marketplace, which shows that there is a strong momentum behind all of our core brands," Hattersley said.

The impending loss of shelf space for Bud Light imperils roughly 500 independent wholesalers that sell and deliver the beer, Carlos Laboy, a beverage industry analyst at HSBC, told ABC News, noting that many of the distributors have already seen their revenue from Anheuser-Busch beverages this year decline by a third or more.

In turn, some wholesalers are cutting back their services and frequency of visits to retailers, Laboy said, further threatening sales performance. "Expect more wholesaler cutbacks now," he added.

A general manager at an Anheuser-Busch distributor in Wisconsin, who declined to share their name, told ABC News that the shelf resets at retailers "could be an issue" but added that they do not expect a "drastic change."

"The boycott has lasted longer than anybody thought," the general manager said. "Every retailer has their own opinion for what sales warrant on their shelves. Time will tell."

To be sure, industry analysts said that Bud Light sales could still recover to the levels at which they stood before the boycott, pointing to another shelf reset in the spring that offers Anheuser-Busch an opportunity to win back lost shelf space.

"These things are fluid," Gerald Pascarelli, a beer industry analyst at Wedbush, told ABC News. "It depends on where consumer preference is and what trends are. They will change."

Still, the impending reallocation of shelf space carries significant risk for Bud Light in the coming months, the industry analysts said.

"You've got to be on the shelf first to be selling," Williams said.

Related Topics