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KING'S GRIP ON BEERS WEAKENS

Distributors find that selling only Anheuser products leaves them feeling limited.

A decade ago, Anheuser-Busch Cos. began dangling financial incentives to get beer distributors to jettison rival brands. The campaign, known as "100 percent Share of Mind," was a big hit, helping the King of Beers tighten its grip on the U.S. market.

But now, some distributors are finding that selling only Anheuser products might not be smart in the fast-changing alcohol-beverage industry.

In the past year, distributors in Texas, Tennessee and elsewhere have decided to eschew Anheuser's incentives and begin selling rival beers such as Yuengling Lager, as well as wine and spirits.

Locally, Great Bay Distributors in Largo and Pepin Distributors in Tampa have parlayed Anheuser-Busch products exclusively to control more than two-thirds of all beer sales in the Tampa Bay area market.

Both Great Bay and Pepin stepped out of the Anheuser family in the mid 1900s to provide the initial Florida distribution for Ybor Gold, a local craft beer. But both of them then dropped that relationship after the company's Bud-only campaign was launched.

Today, about 60 percent of Anheuser's sales flow through distributors carrying only its brands, down from about 70 percent at its peak.

The shift might help competing alcohol brands gain market share, as distributors divert some of their attention from Anheuser, which accounts for about 48 percent of U.S. beer sales. For consumers, it means greater choice at their local bars and liquor stores.

Wall Street analysts say the movement signals a weakening of the St. Louis brewer's clout in the marketplace, as small-batch "craft" beers and imports, as well as wine and spirits, wrest market share from mass-market brews like Budweiser.

Anheuser's exclusive distribution system "was a great business model," but "the consumer environment has changed dramatically," says Bump Williams, general manager of the beer, wine and spirits practice of market-research firm Information Resources Inc.

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