'The biggest losers': Bud Light boycott hammers hundreds of independent distributors

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(NEW YORK) -- Truck drivers delivering Bud Light have received the middle finger from passersby, distributors have faced intentional collisions from shopping carts as they drop off beer and vendors have endured homophobic jokes calling them "gay beer salesmen," according to top officials at several beer distribution companies.

While Anheuser-Busch InBev weathers a consumer boycott of Bud Light over a promotion from a trans influencer, the fallout is hitting hundreds of independent, often family-owned distributors that sell and deliver Bud Light to stores, bars and restaurants.

Bud Light has recorded declining sales for six consecutive weeks after a product endorsement from Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, set off ire among many conservatives.

The losses have strained Anheuser-Busch distributors that draw a significant portion of their revenue from Bud Light, the company's top-selling beer, Anson Frericks, an executive who left Anheuser-Busch InBev last year, told ABC News.

"The biggest losers here are the 500 independent businesses in the U.S. that distribute Anheuser-Busch products," Frericks said. "Those are the people really hurting."

Anheuser-Busch InBev did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Company leaders at four different distributors told ABC News they have faced revenue losses and have weighed responses such as supplementing the income of salespeople paid on commission or burnishing the local brand with additional sponsorships of community events.

Distributors voiced frustration with Anheuser-Busch over its inability to anticipate the backlash and some faulted irate consumers for failing to understand the consequences of their boycott for independent sellers. Some of the distributors declined to share their names because they didn’t want to be publicly identified speaking about the business environment amid the boycott.

"I feel like my main supplier has put the wholesalers and their employees in a really bad spot," the president of an Anheuser-Busch beer distributor told ABC News. "It's frustrating."

Speaking about consumers engaged in the boycott, one Anheuser-Busch beer distributor in the Pacific Northwest told ABC News: "It's sad that they can't make that disconnect between the independent wholesaler and a big corporation -- it's disheartening."

Overall sales of Bud Light fell nearly 25% over the week ending on May 13 compared to the same period a year ago, according to data from Bump Williams Consulting and Nielsen NIQ reviewed by ABC News.

Pestinger Distribution Company, a distributor that serves 23 counties in rural Kansas, has suffered a nearly 30% drop in Bud Light sales since the boycott began in early April, Matt Pestinger, the owner, told ABC News.

Since Bud Light sales make up about a quarter of the company's business, Pestinger said, the dropoff has delivered a blow to its bottom line: Revenue grew 5% compared to last year over the months before the boycott but has fallen 2% since, he said.

"We're stressed some because you never want to see red numbers," Pestinger added, noting that losses had moderated in recent weeks.

Instead of cutting costs, Pestinger has sought to contain the damage by spending more on sponsorships of local festivals and charities, he said.

"Our business philosophy is you take care of the community and the community takes care of you -- we're doubling down on that," he added.

The president of a different Anheuser-Busch distributor, who declined to detail the extent of its revenue losses amid the boycott, said between 60% and 70% of the company's employees are paid through sales commissions. At the end of this month, the company plans to pay such employees a lump sum to make up for the losses, the company official added.

"I'm trying to keep my employees happy," the company official said. "They're feeling it."

After the initial boycott, Anheuser-Busch InBev posted a statement from CEO Brendan Whitworth on its website.

"We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people," Whitworth said. "We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer."

The company also placed two executives who oversaw the endorsement of Mulvaney's Instagram post on leave, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Anheuser-Busch InBev also provided distributors with free beer for employees and additional ad spending, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

At a meeting in St. Louis two weeks ago, the corporation's upper management met with hundreds of distributors and responded to questions about the path forward, multiple distributors told ABC News.

Some distributors praised the company's response to the boycott while others said the efforts have proven insufficient.

"I trust our leadership," Pestinger said. "I respect the way that they've been handling it."

Distributors voiced optimism that sales of Bud Light will rebound soon. However, if the slump continues for months on end, some distributors said they will need to make cost cuts such as limiting employee hours and slashing sponsorships.

"I think the bad times are behind us," the Pacific Northwest-based beer distributor said. "We do have a game plan if it does come to that level of severity."

Cyndy, an official at Nebraska-based distributor High Plains Budweiser, who declined to provide her last name, said the focus amid the boycott should be on the acute pain for independent sellers.

"In the end, the people hurt the most are the local small business retailers and wholesalers in your community," she said.

Thursday, May 25, 2023 at 12:44PM by Max Zahn, ABC News Permalink