Bass on the doorstep in search of a market

INSIDE BUSINESS Strategy: the brewer is delivering beer like milk in a drive for customer loyalty - but the pair who bought one of its sites have a tougher task
FANCY a beer in front of the television but cannot be bothered to go to the off-licence? Bass Brewers now has the solution - beer delivered to your door.

The company is running a three-month pilot project in Birmingham, Nottingham and London, offering to deliver straight to the consumer a range of its brands - including Carling Premier, Grolsch, Bass, and the alcoholic lemonade Hooper's Hooch - in cases of two dozen. If it proves successful, the scheme will be rolled out nationally next year.

Seamus McBride, the marketing director for Bass Brewers, says: "We are testing this as an additional route to market to measure its potential with consumers. Interest in home shopping is already emerging in other sectors, and we must be aware of the extent of its appeal in the beer market."

But the chance to enjoy a pint at home without all the hassle of actually having to go out and buy it is not a new idea. Various regional brewers in the 1960s and 1970s offered home deliveries. But as with the milkman, the bread man, and the Corona man, whose task it was to deliver dandelion and burdock to the nation's children, the service disappeared as supermarkets grew ever more powerful and more consumers gained access to cars.

Bass Brewers' new service is not aimed at the ultimate couch potato in search of instant gratification, because deliveries will take 48 hours to dispatch. However, the company says it expects its consumers to be those in search of greater convenience - people without cars, or those who are planning parties, or the immobile or elderly.

"The pilot scheme will help us to identify just who those consumers are," says a spokeswoman. Bass will charge pounds 1.99 for delivery, but if more than one case is bought then delivery is free.

Buying direct from the supplier is a growing trend. Consumers can now order anything from books to a case of claret using the phone and a credit card. However, until now most purchases on offer have been indulgent treats rather than commodity items.

But the decision by Bass Brewers to bypass such retailers as off-licences and supermarkets and provide a delivery service for cans of lager could change all that. If you can buy bulk purchases of beer, why not toilet rolls, mineral water, washing powder, cat food, cola, cans of beans and a host of other everyday commodities?

Although Bass says that it has no intention of cutting out the retailer and that it is just providing consumers with added convenience, the pilot scheme is not a wholly altruistic exercise.

It allows the company to identify its core consumers and build up a database, so that they can be singled out again and again. Winning customer loyalty is one of the biggest tasks facing branded goods manufacturers. The momentous rise of supermarket own-label brands means that they are fighting for market share in an ever more competitive environment.

If Bass can identify who buys its products and devise ways of maintaining their loyalty, rather than watching consumers switch to supermarket or other branded lagers and ales, then it will be at a distinct advantage.

The direct marketing industry says that generally branded manufacturers have been caught on the hop by the supermarket chains like Tesco and Safeway, which have introduced sophisticated customer loyalty schemes.

"They have established strong relationships with consumers. They now have the power and manufacturers feel that they are missing out. They want their piece of the action," says one analyst.

Some branded goods companies are already taking steps to ensure customer loyalty. Heinz is involved in a pounds 10m direct marketing programme centred around its consumer magazine Heinz at Home, which is sent directly to households and carries product promotions and money- off coupons.

Unilever is currently looking at what direct marketing can do for its group of companies, which includes Birds Eye Wall's, Lever Brothers, Van den Bergh foods and Elida Gibbs.

If, through direct marketing, these companies build up sophisticated databases of loyal consumers who regularly buy their products, then offering to sell beans and washing powder direct to your home could be the next step.