Image: Wine bottles
Morry Gash  /  AP
At Thief Wine, less-expensive bottles have moved from hard-to-reach shelves to the front of the store.
updated 4/16/2009 6:31:35 PM ET 2009-04-16T22:31:35

Bad economy or not, Marty Stogsdill still likes his scotch.

But the 26-year-old computer consultant is more apt to enjoy it at his condo with friends than in a bar these days. Going out, he pays $10 to $18 for a glass of scotch. At home? He can buy a bottle for $35 to $50.

"You're not really giving anything up," he said. "You're just cutting out the markup, essentially."

A growing number of consumers are spurning drinking in restaurants and bars to save money. They're also choosing less expensive beer, wine and liquor to take home. Some are even trading down from wine and spirits to beer, which typically costs less.

Stogsdill says when he does go out in Milwaukee, it's only to happy hours and often for cheaper beers — anything to cut his drinking budget.

Sales of liquor, wine and beer meant to be consumed at home are now expected to rise 4.8 percent this year to $79 billion, according to Mintel International Group. The Chicago-based research firm recently had to revise its 2009 forecast to keep up with how quickly people are changing their behavior.

Mintel expects this to be the first year since at least 2003 that Americans cut their spending on alcohol in bars and restaurants. Alcohol sales in bars and restaurants are forecast to drop 1.2 percent to $54.2 billion.

So it's not that we're drinking any less; spending during the recession is just shifting to stores. Already in the 12 months ending in February, Americans spent 7.2 percent more on wine at food, drug and mass-merchandise stores than they did in the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen.

When people socialize at home, not only is there no one to tip, there's also no bar or restaurant mark-up. Having even one glass of wine at a bar can cost as much as a whole bottle to take home — especially as people have gravitated to buying less-expensive wines.

Not to suggest that bars and restaurants are empty. But customers aren't spending like they used to.

Nick Terpolilli, a 30-year-old bartender in Chicago, said people are now asking him more often how big their bar tab is getting and are setting lower limits for themselves.

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"They're more likely to have just a couple of rounds of drinks, ask about specials, what's the cheapest beer," said Terpolilli, who himself is spending more time at home parties socializing with friends, rather than going out.

David Duncan also finds himself drinking more at home among other measures to trim his budget. The 56-year-old from Portland, Ore., is bidding 'adieu' to French red wines and saying 'hello' to domestic ones. He's also replacing some of his wine consumption with craft beers, saying there are plenty of delicious deals to be had there.

"I'm definitely looking for, I wouldn't call it bargains — I still like a good bottle of wine — but for deals," Duncan said as he shopped the aisles of local grocer Fred Meyer, where he picked up a bottle of wine along with a few essentials.

Phil Bilodeau, the owner of Thief Wine store and bar in Milwaukee, is spending plenty of time these days helping customers looking for wine to take home.

Chris VanMeter, a 51-year-old who stops in regularly for wine to drink at home with his wife, happily left with two Spanish wines Bilodeau suggested, each about $10.

"I'm getting good wine for this price point, rather than guessing," he said.

While Bilodeau says sales at the bar portion of his business are holding steady — especially as he lowered the range his per-glass prices — the shift toward drinking at home is bad news for brands heavily dependent on sales in bars and restaurants.

Miller Lite, for instance, saw its sales volume fall 7.5 percent in last year's fourth quarter in part due to weak sales in those places. Owner MillerCoors, a venture of SABMiller's U.S. unit and Molson Coors, is now going after consumers who drink at home with a new $100 million-plus ad campaign that includes displays in grocery stores.

"We want to be where the consumers are going to be shopping the most," spokesman Julian Green said.

Bilodeau says he's been seeing the strongest demand for wines that cost less. When he first opened his shop in a posh market last summer, he put his cheapest offerings on a high shelf. Fast forward a month, and they were front and center in two carts, one for reds under $10 and another for whites. Now he stocks 75 wines under $10, more than double what he carried when he opened.

"People just gravitate to it," Bilodeau said of the ten bucks and under bins.

Alcohol sellers from neighborhood stores to multinational companies are featuring more products at lower prices — like $10 wines — and massaging their marketing, including offering recipes to help customers play bartender at home.

"They're trying to make it clear you don't have to be in the fanciest restaurant to enjoy good wine," said Mintel analyst Marcia Mogelonsky.

More time at home means fewer chances for drunk driving, experts say. In general, people drive less in a down economy since they're cutting out trips that aren't essential, said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"What you can curtail is driving to the game, driving to the bar," he said, and that could mean fewer serious accidents.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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