Beer sales immune to regional row

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Beer sales immune to regional row

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Japanese beers are growing in popularity and taking up more space on the shelves of large discount chain stores and supermarkets here despite strained ties between Korea and Japan over the disputed Dokdo islets in the East Sea.

According to E-Mart, the country’s largest discount chain store, sales of Japanese beers rose 101.5 percent between January and August compared to the same period last year. Overall sales of imported beer surged 53.4 percent.

Japanese beer sales also doubled at Lotte Mart over the same period, and Asahi has for the last two years been the best-selling foreign brand at local convenience stores including GS 25, CU (formerly Family Mart) and 7-Eleven.

Although the volume of food and beverages imported from Japan has been steadily declining since March last year, mostly due to concern of a radiation leak at the tsunami-hit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plan, beer appears to be the exception to the rule.

According to Korea Customs Service (KSC), one in five bottles of imported beer came from Japan last year, beating the Netherlands and the U.S. for the first time.

“An increasing number of regular consumers only buy Japanese beer,” said Seol Do-won, executive vice president at Homeplus, the nation’s second-largest discount chain.

Big retailers have helped the trend by engaging in promotional activities such as selling Japanese beer in bulk at discounted prices.

Asahi, which accounts for over 90 percent of Japanese beer sales in Korea to rank as the No. 1 imported beer brand overall, was first introduced in 2000. At the time, it struggled to attract great interest from consumers and trailed U.S. rivals like Miller and Budweiser.

However, Asahi saw remarkable sales growth of 48 percent in 2005 after Asahi Beer and Korea’s Lotte Chilsung Beverage set up Lotte Asahi Liquor.

“Lotte Chilsung’s sales capabilities made Asahi No. 1 in the imported beer market. Asahi is also pinning its hope on more growth here this year with the launch of Asahi Super Dry Black,” said Godato Toshio, a general manager at Asahi Group Holdings.

Suntori Premium Malt and Kirin Ichiban, imported by Oriental Brewery and Hite-Jinro Group, respectively, are also growing in popularity as more young drinkers migrate over from domestic brands.

The two premium beer brands appeared at large discount chains and convenience stores here at the end of last year.

The number of such stores selling Suntory has shot up from 50 in 2010 to 1,500.

Market watchers said Japanese beers have benefited from their high brand awareness.

“They are familiar to Korean consumers, so a lot of people already knew what they taste like before retailers and beverage companies started importing them,” said Yoon Sun-jung, the managing director of Lotte Mart’s alcoholic beverages department.

“Japan being so close to Korea also helps retailers keep the beer fresh and handle stock.”

Asahi, which eclipsed Heineken as Koreans’ favorite foreign beer last year, is going all out to widen the gap this year. According to Lotte Asahi Liquor, it has increased its sales target to 1.5 million bottles.

“We expect more demand for imported liquor this year,” said Kim Jin-gun, a buyer for E-Mart.

By Kim Jung-yoon [kjy@joongang.co.kr]

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