Is Rotation Nation a self-fulfilling prophesy?
Whether it began as a real or a manufactured issue isn’t the point.
“Rotation Nation” is the way some people describe a supposed endless desire for new beers at the expense of old ones. I heard it from a distributor who was defending her business against accusations of indolence. She was telling a story about talking to one of here retail customers. Noticing that he had sold so many cases of a particular brand of craft beer, she assumed he would want more of the same. Instead he wanted none. “People want something new,” he told her.
I do not believe for a moment that customers will stop visiting a place with a good selection just because they don’t have enough new beers each week. I worry, though, that this is a fiction craft beer drinkers and brewers brought on themselves, and that it is one of the causes for this pervasive fear of taprooms throughout the beverage industry.
A question of scale
First, let’s level the playing field. Small retailers rarely have the kind of diversity and selection that causes conflict. If you have six taps and only three are for independent brewers, or you have a very small package store, you’re not attracting the kind of crowd that’s going to ask after new beers weekly. It is important to recognize, though, that these places are distributors’ customers. They buy beer and have an effect on what beers are available in a neighborhood. They will order what customers ask for and some will take a chance on a new independent beer occasionally. Very small taverns and retailers are important outlets, but don’t feel like there’s a part of the “Rotation Nation” claim. It’s the bigger stores and craft beer bars where patrons might clamor for something new every week.
There is an entire class of retailer that built its name on having the latest and greatest craft beer. I once interviewed a restaurant owner who bought a case of Stone for $200 in the 1990s and ended up giving most of it away one taste at a time. Eventually that restaurant grew to have one of the most extensive, highly rotated selections in the area. Its reputation is built on selection. The question is whether having a reputation for selection has anything to do with being a slave to novelty. I gotta say, it doesn’t feel like it does.
Remember that time you decided not to go to a restaurant because it only had 12 beers on tap and another 15 bottle selections? Of course not. People do want to try new things, but not to the exclusion of other good beers. Craft beer drinkers want selection above all. Novelty isn’t an issue for most of us. For most craft beer drinkers, the only thing that matters is that it at least appears to be a craft beer. It’s something that the mega beers count on when they acquire an independent brewery.
When ABInBev bought Wicked Weed it was open about the fact that not enough people care to matter. They know the number of people who will stop drinking Wicked Weed is infinitesimal compared to the number of new global customers. They count on gaining more customers than they lose when they’re choosing what brands to buy. In fact, in Oregon, Bud craft beers actually have seen growth.
Similarly, if a retailer has a sufficient selection, anyone who is turned off by a lack of novelty will be replaced by people who just want to know they’ll have plenty to choose from when they stop in. I know this, and if you’re a craft beer drinker you know it too. Of course, neither you nor I have to make choices that will affect our retail establishments. One feels as if the hooks of “Rotation Nation” have their roots as an attempt to err on the side of caution. But there’s a player missing.
Who likes new beers the most?
Brewers love making new beers as often as is reasonable, sometimes moreso. Breweries have main line beers that are sold all year as well as a slew of seasonals and test batches. A tap room is a place where people are most likely to ask what’s new and to be disappointed if there’s not a regular tap rotation. Rotation Nation begins at the tasting room, for sure, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t end there. Tap rooms, bars, and package stores are all different from one another. People don’t choose one over the other based on potential for new choices, though. They go based on mood. Each place performs a different function for craft beer drinkers. Brewery tasting rooms can out compete retailers in rotation with very little effort. Of course, retailers can outcompete brewers on selection without effort at all. Breweries sell the maximum amount of choices of one brand, retailers sell multiple brands with fewer rotating choices. Maybe this is why retailers want to limit how much business can be done at brewery taprooms. This claim doesn’t sit well with me, but I can see how it’s made in good faith. Solving the Rotation Nation myth, such as it is, is an issue of retailer education but who is going to take the responsibility for telling them they don’t have to try out lots of new beers? It’s hard to imagine a brewery rep talking retailers out of trying something new, and there already is a concern about distributors pushing one beer over another.
Rotation Nation, though, isn’t a consumer-driven phenomenon, it is a marketing problem. It should be treated as such if distributors want to end it. Whether it began as a real or a manufactured issue isn’t the point. For all practical purposes Rotation Nation has been thought into existence. Craft beer’s proliferation into the marketplace calls distribution and retail standard operating procedures into question, but with little incentive for them to rethink the way they do business.
Originally published at stateofthebeer.com on July 13, 2017.