Japan brewer Sapporo loses No.3 spot in first half

(Adds details, company comments and share price)

TOKYO, July 10 (Reuters) - Japanese brewer Sapporo Holdings 2501.T lost the No.3 spot in first-half domestic shipments to rival Suntory Ltd, data from breweries showed on Thursday, as price hikes served to upset long-held industry rankings.

The data showed privately held Suntory was the third largest brewery in terms of shipment volume for the six months ended in June, the first time it has held that position since the company started its beer business in 1963.

Rivals raised beer prices earlier this year to pass on surging raw material costs, but Suntory, the maker of “Premium Malt’s”, has said it will not raise prices of its canned beer until September, attracting price-conscious consumers.

For the first half, Suntory was alone among Japan’s four major breweries in posting growth in shipment volume, up 10.8 percent from a year earlier, lifting its domestic market share to 13.0 percent.

Sapporo, the maker of “Yebisu” beer, had raised prices in April and saw first-half shipments plunge 12.4 percent, reducing its market share to 12.1 percent.

Sapporo said in a statement that price differences had a far bigger impact than it had expected, as consumers have become more sensitive in their spending.

“We will make company-wide efforts and will definitely hold the No.3 spot for the full year,” it said.

Asahi Breweries 2502.T held the top spot with a 37.5 percent share, followed by Kirin Holdings' 2503.T 36.7 percent.

Overall shipments by Japan’s top five brewers fell 4.2 percent in the first half from a year earlier.

For years, Asahi and Kirin have been in a close contest for the No.1 position in the world’s sixth-largest beer consuming country, but Sapporo has held reign over the No.3 spot.

By midday, shares in Sapporo were down 3.2 percent at 666 yen. Asahi rose 0.2 percent to 1,813 yen and Kirin fell 0.8 percent to 1,540 yen. (Reporting by Taiga Uranaka; Editing by Brent Kininmont)