Following Miller's lead: Brewers test slimmer 12-packs

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Hoping to heat up sales by offering consumers convenient packaging, a growing number of brewers are testing or rolling out "fridge packs"-12-packs that take up less room in refrigerators because cans are stacked in two rows of six.

Importer Heineken USA is testing a fridge pack in select East Coast, Midwest and Southern markets for Amstel Light. "We'll see what the results of the test are and make a decision based on that," a spokesman said, noting that early results are "very positive." Anheuser-Busch also has been testing the package in some markets, according to an A-B wholesaler.

Coca-Cola Co. first introduced the packaging two years ago, which, according to industry executives raised its sales about 1%. SAB Miller's Miller Brewing Co. became the first brewer to embrace the carton, rolling it out nationwide in the spring for Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft. A Miller spokeswoman says 12-pack can sales are up on a year-over-year basis.

The moves demonstrate that packaging can be an important marketing tool. In a slow-growing business like beer-which actually suffered a 0.3% decline in shipments last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights-convenient packaging gives consumers another reason to buy a product. Industry observers expect the packages to become an industry norm.

"Consumers demand more convenient packaging," said Brian Sudano, senior VP of the consultancy Beverage Marketing. "Miller taking the lead essentially forces everyone to follow."

The experimentation with the fridge packs represents somewhat of a departure for beer marketers, who typically focus more on image than functional attributes of packaging, said Mr. Sudano. For instance, Heineken introduced keg-shaped cans about five years ago and last year tested aluminum bottles at some high-end bars in New York, Boston and Miami. Bud Light is rolling out bottles with a transparent label to give it a more "sophisticated" look, said Dan McHugh, senior director-Bud Light marketing at A-B, who declined to comment on A-B's plans regarding fridge packs.

Amstel Light clearly hopes that offering the first import in the package will give it an edge. The package "is the first innovation of its kind in the premium import/specialty category, creating awareness and excitement and generating trial," the importer said in a memo to wholesalers. Amstel needs a boost. Shipments grew by about 2% last year-better than the overall market and overall imports, but still way down from the 16% increase it posted in 2002, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

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