Post-Pandemic Liquor Consumption in BC

By: Sam Agarwal

Consumer behaviour underwent a significant shift because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is no surprise that liquor consumption has undergone drastic changes in British Columbia in recent years. While some consumption behaviours have returned to pre-pandemic times, many may last longer as consumers have developed new tastes and habits.

“Liquor consumption has undergone drastic changes.”

For more than a decade, Ipsos has been tracking alcohol consumption trends among 12,600 Canadian alcohol consumers via the Alcohol Consumption Tracker (ACT). This research provides valuable insights into the demographic, psychographic, and consumption profile of alcohol consumers in BC before, during, and after the pandemic.

How Have Drinking Habits Changed?

With everyone being stuck at home and social interactions reduced to almost nil, boredom and stress likely contributed to a significant boost in alcohol consumption. Consumption trends tracked by Ipsos ACT showed that drinking rates went up by almost 35% for the average British Columbian in the early months of the pandemic, much higher than the Canadian average of 14%.

“Drinking has now begun a day earlier in the week.”

Drinking occasions increased as people began drinking more often during the week and throughout the day. Weekend, evening, and nighttime occasions dropped while afternoon drinking went up. Further, the British Columbian drinking population added about one additional drinking day per month. What this means is that drinking has now begun a day earlier in the week, on average.

Where Has the Increase Been Most Pronounced?

While consumption across most demographic groups saw a slight uptick in frequency, the rate of increase was much higher among older age groups, especially males aged 55+. We also observed higher rates of alcohol consumption among females 45+.

As Asian Canadians consumption skews higher in BC, this increased consumption post pandemic had a considerable impact in the region.

Retired and unemployed people also reported greater alcohol consumption during COVID. As the younger generation and working population were busy adjusting to the new virtual and work from home reality, the older, non-working population saw a spike in drinking rates, perhaps to deal with the stress and anxiety the pandemic brought.

What Has Changed and What Has Remained?

People still drink for the same reasons they always have. However, the context of drinking occasions has changed. Post-pandemic beverage consumption looks different in terms of where, when, what, and why we drink.

Where – The hospitality sector suffered one of the worst economic blows in 2020 as the Coronavirus led to a complete shutdown of thousands of pubs and restaurants, many of them permanently. Consequently, on-premise volumes for alcohol declined notably through the pandemic. Large group occasions were the worst hit during the pandemic, which disproportionately impacted bars.

While these occasions have begun to return, they remain well below pre-pandemic levels. As of Q3 2022, the on-premise share of the alcohol market in BC has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, but trends positive.​

What – As we gradually moved out of the pandemic, we saw a greater emphasis towards general health and wellness driving consumer behaviour. Even though many consumers are still drinking more, we are starting to see changes in what people are drinking. There is a greater demand for low/no ABV options, as seen in IPSOS Total Consumption Tracker (FIVE).

As many consumers still opt to celebrate and socialize at home, RTD alcoholic beverages (coolers, hard seltzers, pre-mixed cocktails) saw a sharp increase in popularity. This is attributed to convenience and variety. Hard seltzers were the fastest growing segment within RTDs, having grown five times in popularity in BC since the pandemic started.

Why – Drinking to have fun, celebrate, connect with others, and enjoy a special moment all declined year over year during the pandemic​. The most likely long-term impact of pandemic restrictions is a substantial increase in drinking “to relax/de-stress” compared to pre-pandemic levels. This motivation was elevated through 2020/2021 and now appears to be tracking well above pre-pandemic levels.

What Does This Mean for Alcohol Companies?

It’s essential for companies to understand the motivations of their post-pandemic, high-opportunity consumer targets. Whether the pandemic will alter their habits permanently in the long term or not remains to be seen. In the short term it presents opportunities for growth for the industry.

  • Ready-to-drink cocktails present growth prospects, but brands would need to have a point of differentiation. Would this mean greater exploration of unique and bold flavours to cater to the ever expanding and demanding palate of consumers?
  • While on-premise consumption is steadily coming back to pre-pandemic levels, off-premise drinking will continue to hold importance as consumers increasingly try to recreate bar and restaurant quality experiences in the comfort and convenience of their own homes. Brands will need to work extra hard to tailor their offerings for the new channel. Deconstructing the on-premise experience and integrating it with consumer behaviour and motivations can inspire new opportunities for enhancing the at-home consumption experience.
  • At the same time, it will be imperative to strengthen on-premise by providing a premium experience that consumers cannot easily replicate at home. How pubs do that at the backdrop of inflationary pressures would be worth monitoring.

Sam Agarwal is a Director at Ipsos, North America where she leads their Alcohol Consumption Tracking (ACT) research supporting some of North America’s largest brands.