ing the barriers

26 November, 2010

I am probably one of the least useful wine consumers I know. When I walk along wine aisles (which I confess to doing quite a lot, and not always because I need to buy something), I can navigate in a way that few other consumers can. It’s not a boast – just the fact that it’s my job. It’s a bit like reading a familiar newspaper – you know where everything is, and more or less what the stories will be about.

However, if you are not a regular wine aisle devotee, it can be a fairly uninspiring experience. I’ve spent years talking about the “wall of wine”, and how it can intimidate, and yet in many stores the wall is still there, with very little to break it up into manageable chunks.

I still believe that rosé’s decade of success in the UK arises, in part, from the fact that it offers consumers clear signposts – the rosé fixture is easy to spot, it has a relatively small number of products to choose from and most are quite highly branded.

I also have a habit of taking my friends wine shopping to enable me to see the aisle through their eyes. Quite often it’s to a shop they don’t regularly visit. Some of them just buy the special offers on the end of the aisle, others now do most of their wine shopping through grocery delivery services, and hardly set foot inside a supermarket or off-licence any more. Most of them appear to enjoy my wine aisle tours, it has to be said, but I wonder if it’s because they’ve decided on this occasion to take the time to browse (not typically their normal routine) and they can consult me (an “expert”) on anything they don’t understand.

Recently I’ve been devoting a lot of thought to this problem, because the latest tracking data from Wine Intelligence on UK consumer behaviour does not make for encouraging reading. Regular wine drinkers consume less wine per head than they did three years ago, spend less in real terms on a bottle and now care less about wine than they used to.

The promotional deal is now the biggest motivator in terms of purchase cues. Our latest update of consumer behaviour, published last month, shows that the lowest value consumer segments are growing in size in terms of the number of wine drinkers. And this lowest value segment is recruiting more younger people to its ranks than ever before. Meanwhile, the young, high-spending, highly involved segment – the one that will be helping to pay our wages for the next 20 years – is shrinking as a proportion of drinkers.

Clearly we need to put any doom-and-gloom message into context. As an industry we have recruited millions of new consumers to the wine category over the past decade – 5 million in the past three years alone – an amazing achievement.

However, having recruited these new consumers, there doesn’t seem to be a plan for developing their love of wine. They are typically buying cheaper, low/ no-margin wines from supermarket gondola displays. And, dare I say it, perhaps not having a particularly good experience with it, because the quality in the bottle has been sacrificed to make the financial aspects of the promotion work.

So here’s the paradox we need to wrestle with. As wine industry professionals, we want everyone to share our love for the category – we also want to earn a

iving. So why are we pursuing strategies that appear to be eliminating profitability and consumer enjoyment from the wine category??I freely acknowledge it’s a complicated problem that will stretch well beyond this column. However, I think it’s something we’re all responsible for, and we need to address it aggressively – and creatively – if we’re going to get the industry back onto a positive trajectory.

Those of you who have followed the development of the National Wine Month initiative, which came out of a recent industry leaders’ dinner I co-hosted a few months ago, will be familiar with both the diagnosis and prognosis I’ve outlined. I’m sure National Wine Month will be a huge success, and it’s great the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and its chief executive, Ian Harris, have stepped forward to give it the strong leadership it needs.

However, it would be dangerously naïve to think one modestly funded PR campaign, fighting for airtime in the notoriously busy and cynical mainstream media, is going to transform our industry’s fortunes. Each of us needs to get involved.

So, how do you think these issues should be tackled? Nothing should be off the table. I have daydreamed about setting up a new company offering “wine aisle tourism”, to break the barrier down between consumer and fixture. It would be branded, I would issue tickets and I could even do singles nights. Perhaps this needs more thought, but you get my drift.

Feel free to post any of your ideas at, or go old-school and kick off a lively debate on the OLN letters page.

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