Its range of offerings and geographic reach throughout Oregon and Washington are major competitive advantages for Columbia Distributing. “Our biggest competitive advantage is our list of suppliers and our mix of products,” CEO and President Gregg Christiansen asserts. “We’re one of the few that distributes wine – through a shared service agreement with Young’s Market – and soft drinks, beer and non-alcoholic beverages. We’re one of the largest beer distributors in the country, and with our shared service agreement in the wine business, our geographic coverage is the largest in the Northwest.”
As evidence of the benefit of the company’s diverse portfolio, its current leader in sales growth is an energy drink. “Red Bull sales are up significantly and doing extremely well,” Christiansen declares. “It’s a very important brand of ours. We’ve been able to use the Red Bull go-to-market philosophy and add our expertise in the on-premise and the convenience store channels.” Columbia Distributing dedicates 38 vans and trucks to Red Bull. The brand has its own sales and delivery team, but its members share resources with other departments within the company.
Also showing positive growth are sales for 7-Up and Snapple products, higher-end non-alcoholic beverages and low-calorie drinks. “We‘re seeing a lot of growth in new brands and in the organic and health-conscious drinks,” Christiansen says.
Selecting a Product
Columbia Distributing works diligently to develop new products. “Our company’s success is based on identifying and developing brands and categories,” Christiansen emphasizes. “We’re always on the search for products that have potential growth. We do two things – we research and we meet with new suppliers and evaluate the potential of their products.”
Products must meet the needs of customers to be distributed by Columbia. “We have a lot of brands that are low-volume but fit within certain customer criteria and our portfolio requirements,” Christiansen says. “We are a big house, so some brands make sense for us, and for other brands, it’s more logical for the supplier to work closely with a smaller distributor that focuses on a defined target group of retailers. So when we see brands like that, we support a third distributor in the market that handles these types of beverages. We want to see the industry grow; therefore, we don’t take a brand on just to keep it.”
To maintain awareness among customers, Columbia Distributing devotes significant funds for promotion, marketing and special events.
Beer and Wine
Sales of domestic vs. craft beers are growing in an inverse ratio at Columbia. Domestic beer, driven by the distributor’s largest supplier partner, MillerCoors, accounts for 53 percent of annual beer sales, and craft beer accounts for 25 percent. “The beer industry is somewhat soft right now,” Christiansen concedes. “We’ve seen some negative volume trends the last couple of years, but we are experiencing growth in the craft beer industry.
“The less-expensive beers are showing some of the largest declines,” he reports. “With craft beer growing and the imports somewhat stable, there’s been a shift to a higher-priced beer but less volume. It’s contrary to what anybody would expect, but it makes sense.
“I don’t think the domestic declines are due to the craft increase. I’m sure there’s some impact, but the domestic declines have been directly affected by the economy more so than the craft industry. We are the largest craft beer distributor in the country, so that helps us, but overall the industry is experiencing some tough times with the economy, which makes a diversified portfolio even more important.”
Columbia Distributing has its own in-house craft beer division whose focus is on training and brand development. “We have a special sales force that focuses strictly on the craft market,” he says. “We’re always looking for new craft brands that we can build and grow.” Some of the key brands that Columbia distributes are Full Sail, Deschutes, Bridgeport and Blue Moon.