Are low-priced spirits taking share from beer?

A Goldman Sachs report last week reinforced what some industry leaders have been saying for years: cheap spirits are chipping away at beer.

The report by Goldman analyst Judy Hong is pegged on growth of Tito's Handmade Vodka, which after attaining a 10 percent share in the spirits segment began exerting downward pressure on pricing.

In a note to clients, Hong and her team also looked at the historical correlation between beer and spirits buyers and found premium light beers, such as Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light to be the “most exposed within beer to the spirits pricing dynamics.” She notes that AB-InBev’s Bud Light may be the most vulnerable of the group because it had the greatest degree of interaction with Tito's.

Indeed, all three brands have lost case share this year, with Bud Light falling the most at 0.9 percentage points, according to Nielsen cross-channel data through Aug. 12. (Coors Light has lost 0.2 percentage points and Miller Lite 0.1 over the same period.)

Spirit prices are down 0.7 percent while beer prices have risen 1.6 percent in the 12 months ending July 31, according to the latest government data, leading more consumers to migrate to spirits, particularly in entry-level price points. Overall price inflation was 1.7 percent for that period.

Industry leaders for years have pointed to a gap between beer and spirits pricing. Over the past two years MillerCoors has reinvented its pricing strategy to focus on recruiting new consumers. Kevin Doyle, president of sales and distributor operations, made this point at a distributor meeting earlier this year:

"We know that if we could play our game ... we could get to growth, profitably, the right way," Doyle said. That game must take into account "the reality of today's pricing landscape because it's a jungle out there." He underscored the importance of economy brands to MillerCoors', noting that those drinkers "are incredibly loyal" and that the segment is "critical in recruiting new drinkers to beer."

MillerCoors rolled out its economy strategy in 2016 to combat its portfolio's long-standing underperformance within the segment.

To address that — and to help win over consumers from spirits — MillerCoors put more resources behind its portfolio. That includes new packaging and marketing for Miller High Life, the introduction of the 15-pack for Keystone Light and expanded distribution for Hamm’s.

The strategy has paid off. Each of those brands have gained volume and grabbed share this year.

As reported during MolsonCoors' second quarter earnings call on Aug. 2, the company's economy portfolio was down low single digits for the second straight quarter — a significant trend improvement from the past several years. MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley reaffirmed the company's commitment to investing in those brands, and said to ignore them would be to do so at your own peril: "As we saw with the economy drinker, when you ignore them, they just end up going to wine and spirits."