Act before tragedy strikes

12 December, 2008

Now is the time to devise innovative marketing strategies and get to know your consumer, says Lulie Halstead

As well as making half-decent wine, the ancient Greeks also bequeathed us the classical structure of a tragedy in three acts. I know this, not because I studied

classics at university ( architecture, in case you were wondering), but because ever since our celebrated banking professionals have been shown to be somewhat less than perfect after all, the media has been thick with references to how blind we've all been to the pickle we're in (hubris), how we're all therefore doomed (nemesis), and how talking about it openly is somehow helpful (catharsis).

For us in the wine industry, this is a familiar refrain, and one that sadly long predates the global financial crisis. The only difference now is that a greater-than-usual part of industry - drinks, hospitality, financial services, car-making, and so on - is now in the same boat. As the old folks say, it's always nice to have company on a bad day.

So let's cut to the chase: yes, our industry is facing a crisis, like most in the global economy right now, but it's not as if we've been living it large for the past few years. Margins in the UK have been tightening for the best part of a decade, supermarket trading terms have become more aggressive, and volume growth has slowed as we reach the top of the UK wine boom S-curve.

The question is, what have we been doing about it? The answer, sadly, is not enough. For all the cathartic hand-wringing of the past five years, the following fundamental problems still exist.

Consumer communication

We still don't

understand enough about the interaction between a bottle of wine on the shelf and the consumer wandering down a wine aisle.

The truth is we've only

scratched the surface. Wine is probably one of the most complex purchase decisions

and probably the only one that still carries social danger - what will your

parents/friends/relatives say if you serve them some vinegary nonsense? Are vast hallways of identical bottles delineated by country of origin

the optimal way of communicating this

product category?

Take-home treats

As an industry, we still tiptoe around supermarkets .

Multiples need the wine category more than ever

- and not just for the juicy promotions our industry serves up to them. Wine is a chance for supermarket shoppers to express themselves a bit - not quite like

canned vegetables - and aspire

to more than just the bog-standard. When there's a ban on going to decent restaurants

or even

getting take aways , the notion of actually cooking something special


having a good drop of wine with it

becomes a more compelling proposition.

Buying bother

The retail buyer is still seen as some kind of omniscient being. While there are some

intelligent and far-sighted buyers working in the industry, how can they possibly know everything?

It's easier for them to express a personal opinion which can shoot down a proposed product, but too few in the industry are willing to push the debate into the realm of the rational


for example, what role this product can play in a fixture. At the end of the day retailers are

a transmission system of product to consumer. They'll sell whatever consumers need

or want . If the consumers come back week after week, spending lots of money and feeling happy as a result, then supermarkets have done their job. If we can help them do better, we should do so - and buyers who do their jobs well ought to listen.

Generating sales

We as an industry have to care as much about selling the product as we do about making it.

It's astounding that so many producers

behave as if consumers were some kind of necessary evil - and selling wine to them an unfortunate by-product of being a winemaker. This is a luxury that we as an industry could never

afford, and is particularly superfluous now.

Clearly some of these problems are being addressed, which is great news.

The WSET's Business & Commercial Knowledge course

is being taught next April, and Wine Intelligence is

working hard with clients across the world to increase our knowledge of consumers and find ways to help retailers make their customers happy by selling them wine that they will enjoy.


the storm is over

the winners in each sector of the economy will be the ones that came up with the best plan and had the courage to execute it while the rain was still hammering down.

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