TBJ: The paradox of choice

TBJ: The paradox of choice

Beer on the shelves at Walmart, including the faux-craft product Cat's Away IPA
Beer on the shelves at Walmart, including the faux-craft product Cat's Away IPA. photo by Chloe Kanner

When it comes to beer, is there such a thing as too many options?

In a 2000 experiment, two social scientists published a study in which groups of supermarket customers were presented with different tables offering gourmet jams. The first group saw a table with six varieties of jam, while the second was offered 24. The six-jam table saw 20 percent less customer interaction than its counterpart. However, when the shoppers went to make their purchases, the table with just six options generated 10 times as much business as the other.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote about this phenomenon in his 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy,” Schwartz states.

As consumers, it seems reasonable to think that the more choices we have, the more satisfaction we will enjoy. However, Schwartz posits that “there is a cost to having an overload of choice. … (It) contributes to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction.”

Our chain grocery stores today offer the same overwhelming options, with endless choices all the way down to the beer aisle. For some, choosing which beer to buy takes several minutes of pacing in front of the coolers and shelves.

“I definitely think I’m a little overwhelmed if I put on my ‘Joe Grocery Shopper’ hat,” says Rob Bergin, administrator of the Seacoast Beer Facebook group. “The macro takes up so much room. I have to hunt for craft in between the mega-packs of Bud Light.”

The decisions made in those moments are directly impacting our local breweries.

Craft-washing
Not too long ago, most grocers’ coolers carried beer from only a few dozen breweries.

“For the last, say, 60 years, beer in the U.S. has been a story of brand loyalty,” says JT Thompson, “minister of propaganda” at Smuttynose Brewing Company in Hampton. “That’s really gotten broken down as the number of breweries has increased. I know the brands I buy outside of my Smuttynose drinking, and I can tell you it’s not a large number. I think I’m unusual in this regard.”

JT Thompson, "minister of propaganda" at Smuttynose Brewing in Hampton
JT Thompson, “minister of propaganda” at Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Hampton, says that while beer consumers used to be loyal to a specific brand, they now tend to drink lots of different beers. photo by Anna Solo

Brand loyalty is not just about the particular flavor or smell of a favorite beer. A certain brand can evoke a feeling of satisfaction, or a memory or experience. As the newest generation of beer drinkers is presented with seemingly endless options, these memories and experiences become less connected with a particular brand.

For smaller craft breweries, that lack of brand loyalty not only makes it more challenging to capture repeat customers, but additionally makes business forecasting and growth projections nearly impossible to nail down.

“Some consumer groups have moved towards exclusively supporting small and local, some groups seem to be obsessed with following the latest ‘beer geek’ trends, while other long-time craft adopters are happy to drink the same few brands that are available in their local grocery store,” says Thompson.

Even more detrimental to the local craft industry is the ill-informed consumer. Amid all the labels in the six-pack aisles, it seems pretty easy to distinguish the craft beers from the macros. However, that shelf space is being scooped up by Big Beer in disguise: beer made by one major corporation dressed up to look like its true craft compatriots.

One of those Big Beer corporations is World Brews, a subsidiary of the Wine Exchange that brews and distributes beer exclusively to major retailers such as Walmart and Sam’s Club. They package these beers with names and imaging that make it difficult for the customer to differentiate it from a true craft brewery.

“Beer shows up in grocery stores because World Brews makes it happen. Big business is cranking out the products to put on the shelves.” — Rob Bergin of the Seacoast Beer Facebook group

Take the example of Cat’s Away IPA, which includes a logo that says Trouble Brewing but is in fact produced by World Brews. Masquerading as a craft beer from an independent brewery, Cat’s Away might pique the interest of someone seeing it for the first time. Rob Bergin illustrated a typical response.

“‘What is this product? Trouble Brewing? That sounds dangerous, risqué,’” Bergin says. “But it’s not really a craft beer product.”

In fact, Cat’s Away and other Trouble Brewing beers are distributed exclusively at Walmart, part of a line of private-label, craft-style beers the mega-store now offers. And although the cans look interesting, the beer has not gotten favorable reviews.

“Beer shows up in grocery stores because World Brews makes it happen,” Bergin says. “Big business is cranking out the products to put on the shelves.”

This infiltration of the craft beer section prevents smaller craft brewers from getting adequate shelf space, if any at all. What’s worse is that they are priced to attract the spending-conscious consumer. Twelve dollars might get you a dozen Cat’s Away cans, while it might only cover a six-pack of local craft beer.

This is especially problematic for a Big Beer drinker looking to see what all the craft beer fuss is about. Once they try Cat’s Away and find it unappealing, the craft industry has lost a potential new customer.

That’s not to say a Smuttynose Finest Kind can convert every last Budweiser stalwart, but at least it’s a beer brewed by people who care as much about quality as profit margins, and that care is evident in the product.

Craft thriving
While this craft-washing trend may sound like impending doom, the craft beer market in New England continues to thrive. Customers have shown that while they may not be “brand loyal,” they continue to be “craft loyal.” Ever-present lines for cases at places like Bissell Brothers in Portland, Maine, or Treehouse Brewing in Monson, Mass., make it clear that the combination of quality and local is still paramount to the educated craft consumer.

Butch Heilshorn, co-owner of Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth
Butch Heilshorn, co-owner of Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth, focuses on drawing customers to the taproom instead of distributing in stores. photo by Anna Solo

For some breweries, the solution is avoiding the grocery store’s paradox of choice altogether. Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth has spent the last three and a half years creating an environment to draw customers to the taproom instead of getting beer on retail shelves.

“We’ve just had a more intimate idea about our beer and our customers, a singular focus on a taproom, says co-owner Butch Heilshorn. “It’s not that we decided against distribution. It was always in our minds to get some kegs out to regional bars … but the purpose is to drive business to our place, not make a bunch of money out of state.”

The warmth of a community-driven taproom is one of the many unique caveats that make the craft beer world so enticing.

Additionally, local craft beer gives back to the community.

“The last three decades of craft brewing have shown that successful small breweries are economic engines that provide jobs and help keep money in and circulating around communities,” says Thompson, who is also a founding officer of Brew NH, a grassroots marketing partnership between New Hampshire’s beer distributors and brewers. “With the exception of a few specialized positions in larger organizations, local breweries employ local people, and that’s a great thing.”