Think summer, think cider; that's the message that the cider industry has always been keen to pass on to both consumers and retailers. In the three years since the combination of Magners' explosive UK launch and the last scorching summer reignited the category, this time of year has seen plenty of sparkle on the cider shelves - quite a contrast from the relative doldrums being experienced by wine, beer and the alcohol fixture as a whole.

The association with sunshine, sporting events, music festivals and lazy afternoons around the barbecue with friends has served the category well over the years, and despite recent poor summers it has continued to fizz while beer sales have gone flat. The total off-trade cider market was valued by AC Nielsen at £619m last year, up 15.7%, with the premium category showing an eyebrow-raising 24% increase.

Merrydown's managing director Chris Carr says the early part of this year saw premium ciders continue to outperform the alcohol sector. "In the eight weeks to April 18, premium cider saw 12% volume growth and 16% value, and given the state of the market and the weather at the time that's good news." he says. "Obviously, supermarkets have the shelf space to offer more choice, and they have cashed in with multibuys like four for £5, but the rate of growth in premium has been greater in c-stores.

"People are up for something new. I think the 'over-ice' phenomenon is still attractive, even if the manufacturers aren't pushing it so much this year, but many consumers will prefer their premium cider straight from the chiller rather than diluted." Where chilled space is limited he recommends cans of a variety of skus, sold as singles.

As ever with impulse alcohol purchases, it ain't sold if it ain't cold. S&N head of customer marketing Shaun Heyes says: "Traditionally, it's strong in convenience as it's a great drink to quench the thirst, and it's important to stock in the chiller during the summer months, when an unexpected rise in temperatures will encourage impulse purchases."

Vicky Lee, marketing manager at CWF, which this year introduced Nectars, a pear cider aimed at the 25-35 age group, believes that cider has shed its traditional image of strong tasting, poor quality and badly packaged products.

"With its lighter taste and over-ice concepts the category has broadened its appeal to include a growing number of female drinkers and those who will perhaps drink cider with a meal, or as an alternative to wine," she says, "and with very little NPD activity generally in the alcoholic drinks market to take the consumer's eye, cider brand owners have a real opportunity to cement their relationship with loyal purchasers through targeted promotional activity and flavour range extension throughout this key period."

Leave the core

Kopparberg, distributed by Ciders of Sweden, was one of the first pear cider brands to break the UK market. Managing director Davin Nugent says the health of the market is reflected in the number of variants now competing for shelf space. "Magners did us all a favour a few years ago and we've all benefited from the introduction of new consumers to the market," he admits, although he also reveals that Magners Original is the only top seller currently declining in sales.

"I think the repertoire of British drinkers is changing; those who once might have drunk beer throughout a session might now start or finish with cider, but equally we're seeing sweet cider take the lion's share of its growth from white and rosé wine and long spirit drinks."

"The key is to realise what the customer is looking for," says Nugent. "People have a wider range of tastes in wine and beer, and cider is no longer simply 'cider' as there are a number of tastes within that description. Jacques is very different from our Kopparberg fruit flavours, for example. Retailers should learn the taste profiles of their customers, just as they would do with wine."

The wider selection means that premium cider, always a talking point in its West Country heartland, is attracting a national group of connoisseurs, giving retailers looking for a point of difference the opportunity of becoming recognised as their area's cider specialist.

Westons Cider head of off trade Peter Matthew agrees that the imagery and investment of the mainstream brands has captured the attention of consumers, but warns that in a crowded category it is brand and NPD launches which will wrestle shelf room from older SKUs. "The winners will be those who listen and innovate and Westons has been working hard to meet consumers' ever growing expectations," he says, pointing to the repositioning of the company's key brands in a lighter 500ml bottle.

Premium bottled cider saw a 22% sales rise in the year to April (MAT), but it was left behind by the pear variant, very much the cider sensation of 2008, which rose 54%. In impulse, the figures were 24% and 104% respectively, showing just how much the newcomer penetrated the drink-now market, introducing female consumers to the category and also, according to CWF's Lee, becoming a big hit with students on a tight budget.

'Female appeal' is also the driver behind innovation into new fruit ciders. Jacques Orchard Fruits and Fruits of the Forest available in a 750ml bottle are popular with groups of women, says S&N, and Kopparberg and Devon Cider's Old Moors brand have both introduced cider with elderflower variants.

Brothers Cider's eclectic range now includes lemon & pear, strawberry and pear & toffee apple variants, with Fresh Trade UK weighing in with eight flavours including blueberry, raspberry & cherry, all available in can and PET formats.

Beverage Brands marketing director Debs Carter has also spotted new possibilities for the fixture. "Cider outperformed the total liquor market by 9% over the past year, and if you drill down within the category to see where the growth is coming from, it's the sweeter, more contemporary ciders which are really having the biggest impact," she says.

"This sector, which includes both Bulmers and Magners, accounted for 78% of cider volume sales in the impulse sector last year and grew by 32%.

"These two take the lion's share of sweet/contemporary cider sales, but their growth over the past year slowed to 11%, while the burgeoning range of other ciders launching into the category increased sales by 120% as consumers gravitated towards emerging new brands."

However, it's not all about "orchards, apple presses and traditional rustic imagery," she adds. "There's a gap in the market for a cider with a more contemporary feel."

Beverage Brands' response is to extend its established RTD brand, WKD, into the cider category with Core, a 4.5% abv apple cider intended to bring the personality and humour of WKD to the category.

Launched last month, the Core promotional campaign includes pos materials and promotional deals as well as merchandising advice leaflets that remind retailers to stock it with ciders rather than RTDs.

Also looking to capitalise on the category's relatively buoyant sales is Halewood International, which is encouraging retailers to add its Crabbie's Alcoholic Ginger Beer - an alternative 'over ice' choice - to the cider shelves.
top tips
"Stocking well-known leading brands such as Strongbow and Bulmers Original will ensure that you profit from impulse purchases, as shoppers are more likely to choose a brand they recognise and trust."

Shaun Hayes, S&N

"Create a seasonal display like a BBQ or picnic area, and encourage cross-range selling by putting key brands together for a stronger shelf presence."

Heather Mead, Westons Cider

"Look at the events calendar and try to develop some themed promotions - for example, a day at the races. Pulling drinks and food together that fit the concept can boost revenue through the period."

Vicky Lee, CWF

"Get your offer right, built around apple and pear, and then look to slowly bring in more variants and other fruit flavours. Above all, don't overlook cider; it's a very attractive, exciting market."

Davin Nugent, Ciders of Sweden
retailer opinion
"Cider used to be all about the cheap 3ltr bottles but we've moved away from those now. I decided I didn't want the kind of customers they were bringing in, and I think you could see the link between white cider and the anti-social behaviour we get around here.

"The attitude towards cider is definitely changing and it's becoming a much more fashionable drink. Scrumpy Jack, Magners and Strongbow all go really well for us - it used to be all cans up our way, but we're seeing growth in bottled sales as well now.

"I've got Magners and Bulmers pear ciders in the chiller with the beers, but I think people are buying cider to drink over ice so it doesn't necessarily need to be chilled. Of course we sell the ice as well!

"Since it's been a bit warmer I've seen cider sales shoot up, at the expense of ales rather than lagers, I would say.

I think you have to keep changing your offer and your display to see what works. I've pushed the the two Jacques fruit variants which are catching on nicely and we've recently added WKD Core to see how that goes."

Andy Singh, Chapel Food Stores, Newscastle-upon-Tyne
ones to watch...

Pear pressure

Bulmers Pear is launched for this season in a 500ml can to accompany the 568ml bottle. The company says the pear variant is now the fifth biggest cider in off-trade and is the fastest growing among the top 10 with a 425% year-on-year increase. The can format is proving popular and is intended to attract new drinkers to the brand.

tel: 01432 352000

Western front

Blackthorn, the best known of Gaymer Cider Company's portfolio and the number four in the UK, has had a makeover in packaging and taste. A more mellow liquid has a lower abv, reduced from 5.5% to 4.7%, while the new apple tree icon, apple quality seal and West Country tagline are all highlighted in the 'Black is Back' campaign.

tel: 01749 334 000

Vintage year

Thatchers Cider has released its Vintage Cider 2008, its first in 500ml bottles. With an abv of 7.4%, this medium dry cider is light gold and lightly sparkling. The company believes the 500ml bottle will help drive trial purchase, before customers move up to the 750ml bottle.

rrp: £1.69 for 500ml; £2.19 for 750ml

tel: 01934 822862

Jack's new packs

Scrumpy Jack, which supplier Jygsaw Brands says is the number three selling premium cider with sales up 68% on last year, is available in a new can design from this month. The refreshed visuals celebrate the brand's heritage and its association with the Symonds Hereford Cider Pressers which dates back to 1727.

tel: 01242 588000

Rosie-tinted glass

Weston's range of traditional ciders has had a facelift for summer '09, with new imagery and branding. Old Rosie, the range's flagship cloudy Scrumpy brand, has been relaunched in a lighter 500ml bottle.

The new bottle shape, which is unique to Westons, is being used across the 500ml range to increase recognition of the brand.

tel: 01531 660132