Adult Beverages

Q&A: Walmart Craft-Beer Buyer Adrienne Freeman on Beer, Bridge-Building

Freeman's focus on connecting with, spotlighting local, diverse brewers helps fill craft-beer gaps for retailer
Adrienne Freeman; Walmart
Photograph courtesy of Adrienne Freeman; Walmart photograph: Shutterstock

Adrienne Freeman is a craft-beer buyer for Walmart. Since taking on that role in 2019, she has revitalized Walmart’s beer program, inking more than 100 new partnerships with craft brewers and brands across the central U.S. She has sought out, in particular, innovative, standout local brewers to feature on Walmart shelves in local markets—and when COVID-19 forced the shutdown of brewers' revenue-generating tap rooms, Freeman created and spearheaded a "Drink Local" display campaign for Walmart stores to help highlight locally made offerings and support some of Walmart's newest suppliers in the category.  

Under her leadership, in less than two years, Walmart's craft-beer business has grown by more than 29%. Earlier this month, Walmart announced the debut in around 300 Walmart stores of Black Is Beautiful stout from San Antonio-based Weathered Souls Brewing Co.—another partnership coordinated by Freeman and brought to scale with the collaboration of eight other breweries that Freeman enlisted to help produce the beer.

In an email interview, Freeman shared with WGB more about what it took to make the Drink Local campaign and the Weathered Souls production collaboration happen, and her commitment to filling Walmart's craft-beer shelves with more offerings from diverse, underrepresented brewers.

Christine LaFave Grace: Walmart likes to say that 90% of U.S. consumers live within 10 miles of a Walmart. You’ve brought this intensely local focus to your rolefor a retail giant like Walmart, what goes into making a campaign like Drink Local happen? Further, what were conversations with brewers like when you approached them? Was there hesitation you had to overcome?

Adrienne Freeman: We have been on a journey to expand our assortment offerings within local craft beer for the past two years. Walmart established the craft beer team two years ago; it comprises a national merchant and three regional merchants. The structure of our team has allowed us the flexibility to truly explore the craft beer category and anchor on local wins.

Our philosophy is that craft beer is a category of the community, and we pride ourselves in bringing that community element into our stores.

The Drink Local campaign has been a display program in thousands of our stores that highlights local craft brands from nearby towns or within the state. The exposure allows our customers to get excited to see their favorite brands they haven’t previously found in our stores, as well as help them discover new names popping up locally. We've taken the time to build strong supplier relationships these past couple of years, so the brewer response to this program has been met with positivity and trust.

Many craft breweries see the majority of their revenue come in through their taprooms. When the pandemic hit, breweries had to shut down their taprooms due to health safety restrictions—causing hundreds of breweries to lose their primary source of income overnight.

It hit home for me when one of our local breweries in Northwest Arkansas had to close their doors and furlough all of their employees. I knew that our Drink Local program could be used as a way to help keep product flowing out of breweries during the pandemic. With the support of many of our store managers, who wanted to find ways to support their local community businesses, we've doubled down on a Drink Local program that has created shared value across all parties

How did you connect with Weathered Souls brewer Marcus Baskerville? How did you find and recruit the eight additional brewers to produce Black Is Beautiful for Walmart, and what did that collaborative process look like?

I first discovered Weathered Souls on Instagram when I came across a post highlighting Black-owned businesses. I was really inspired by Marcus and his commitment to support racial justice. I was also impressed with the high-quality brews and variety of offerings that Weathered Souls produces. 

I noticed that there were hundreds of breweries making Black Is Beautiful on draft (Weathered Souls published its recipe for Black Is Beautiful last summer, encouraging other brewers to donate proceeds from sale of the stout to social-justice initiatives), but many weren’t bottling or canning the item. Many of [the eight selected] brewers were already involved from a draft perspective, so it was a natural transition for them to package the item. Customers will be able to find Black Is Beautiful in roughly 300 Walmart stores through the end of March. Weathered Souls is part of our year-round craft brew assortment in 55 Walmart stores throughout Texas, as well.

In 2019, according to the Brewers Association, 89% of craft brewers in the U.S. were white. White men, in particular, have long dominated positions of power within the category. How do you seek to use your work to connect with and/or amplify the profiles of individuals underrepresented in the industry? What unique-to-you perspective do you bring to your role?

It’s important that our products reflect the diversity of the many customers and communities we serve. I recognize that as both an African American and a woman, I bring a unique world view to this industry that can help contribute to that representation in our portfolio.

I believe that my point of view allows me to understand cultural or lifestyle differences that may not be naturally understood by someone who doesn't share the same backgrounds. As a result, this could boost business growth in a sector. That doesn't mean there aren't others who can share or learn my perspective, but it means that I see it as my responsibility as a decision-maker to cater to the needs that I can see and amplify products from diverse suppliers that can fill those unique gaps for our customers.

This aligns nicely with Walmart's values of supplier diversity and racial equity. Walmart has an incredibly robust supplier diversity program. Last year alone, we sourced nearly $11 billion from diverse suppliers. Businesses like Weathered Souls make it easy for us when looking for diverse suppliers that create really fantastic products.

What’s exciting to you about the craft-beer category at this moment? What are consumers exploring; how are attitudes and preferences shifting; what influence, if any, has COVID had?

Craft beer is exciting in how much variety and innovation is constantly being churned out. We know that our customers are interested in trying new assortments in the adult beverage category, which is why we're dedicated to accelerating the growth of our craft-beer assortment and bringing a solution to customers where there might be gaps.

One of the largest preferential shifts we’re seeing in the industry is the rise of the "hazy IPA"—something that started in the New England breweries and has now caught steam nationwide. We've also seen a significant shift toward finding better choices such as low-calorie styles and craft seltzers.

COVID's main impact on craft beer and grocery trends this past year has been that customers have doubled down on supporting local items as well as buying trusted national brands. Trends in the online grocery sector for pickup and delivery have also accelerated. With many craft breweries and tap rooms closed during the pandemic, we've been able to use our in-store and online channels to offer our customers a way to purchase and enjoy their favorite craft brands at home.

What are you looking forward to in the year ahead? What’s next for craft beer at Walmart? 

I’m looking forward to seeing how our customers respond to the breadth of assortment we’ll have in stores this year. We've added 200 new craft brewers to our supplier network in the past two years alone, and we’re on track to add another 100 breweries to Walmart stores starting in April. In total, our full craft team will bring over 1,000 new beer items into stores this year. 

 

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