Consumer

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

Asahi Group, Japan's biggest brewer, is on a global shopping spree. It may pay as much as 400 billion yen ($3.4 billion) for SABMiller's Peroni and Grolsch brands, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported over the weekend. And it's also been looking at buying U.S. ice-tea and flavored-water company Talking Rain at a price the Nikkei newspaper put at 50 billion yen.

The proposed deals are an encouraging sign of the company's global ambitions. But in its quest for worldwide presence, Asahi may be ignoring a domestic success story.

Beer is largely a demographics business, with consumption correlating quite closely to the size of a country's working-age population. That makes for tough going in a nation whose population is both graying and declining: Asahi's net domestic sales of alcoholic drinks fell 2.5 percent between 2010 and 2014, reducing the category's revenue share to 54 percent of all sales from 66 percent, according to its most recent annual report

But while male employment has been declining since the mid-1990s, the number of women in work has been steadily increasing, reaching a record of nearly 27 million last year, OECD data show. The percentage of working-age women in jobs recently overtook the equivalent figure for the U.S., and has been ahead of the euro zone for at least a decade:

Ryoko the Riveter
A larger share of Japan's working-age women have jobs than in the U.S. or Europe
Source: OECD, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Note: Shows participation rate for women aged 15-64, seasonally adjusted. Available Euro zone data is quarterly, U.S. and Japanese data is monthly.

One effect of this has been a change in the country's traditionally testosterone-heavy drinking culture. Izakaya watering holes have revamped their menus and decor to attract more female customers, while other small bars have sprung up to cater to the new clientele. There's even been a proliferation of host bars, according to a recent paper by Singapore-based researcher Swee-Lin Ho, mirroring one of the more demimonde segments of Japan's male drinking scene by having attractive and flirtatious men serve drinks to groups of women.

I Am a Cider Drinker
Japanese cider & perry sales volumes, annual
Source: Euromonitor

Asahi's competitors have been pitching aggressively for this market. According to Euromonitor, you can get a proxy for the growth of Japanese female drinking by looking at the consumption of cider, which is popular among the country's women because of its less bitter flavor. Kirin's Hard Cidre, introduced in 2013, helped drive Japan's cider and perry volumes up 15 percent that year and 18 percent the following 12 months, Euromonitor data show.

Whisky has also undergone a resurgence, thanks in part to Suntory's marketing of highball cocktails to women drinkers in a string of adverts starring actress Koyuki Kato:

Japan's beer market declined one percent during 2015, while whisky sales jumped 14 percent, Suntory said last week.

Keeping a focus closer to home may be wise, given the mixed success of Japanese brewers' overseas forays to date. Kirin said last month it was facing its first annual loss since 1949, due in part to a 114 billion yen one-time hit from the Brazilian business it acquired in 2011. Asahi's largest cross-border purchase to date, the purchase of New Zealand's Independent Liquor in the same year, resulted in a lawsuit against its private equity sellers after Asahi claimed it had been given false information about the company's finances.

By bulking up in Europe and the U.S., Asahi would be doubling down on some of the same developed markets other brewers are working hard to quit, while diverting capital away from a domestic beverage business that's still most profitable by a substantial margin:

Beer Money
Operating margins at Asahi Group units, annual
Source: Company reports, Bloomberg calculations

Improving the diversity of Asahi's own workforce may help correct this myopia. At present, women account for one member on Asahi's nine-person group board, according to the latest annual report, and just 3.1 percent of department heads within Asahi Breweries. The only division where the female proportion of management positions matches the 20 percent share Asahi targets for the group as a whole is the Wakodo unit, with 22 percent. It makes baby formula.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net