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Can British retailers learn from consumer wine trends in the US?

The United States of America. The world's largest consumer of wine by volume; yet mid-tier when ranked per capita (just 10 litres, versus more than 40 in France).


More and more Americans are turning to wine, particularly the 'Millennials' much vaunted by marketeers. This cohort of people born between the early 1980s and 2000, eighty million strong, is the great hope of the wine trade over the pond.


We have Millennials in Britain too, of course. I am one of them. We speak the same language, we largely like the same types of music and TV shows, we mostly grew up with a keyboard at our fingertips, social networking is now second nature, and anecdotally at least alcohol is more within our reach (in terms of accessibility, variety and affordability) than generations before us.


Yet do we think the same about wine? Probably not.


The search engine Wine-Searcher has recently reported on some new research on higher-end drinkers in the US, and what wines they're choosing. Chances are, most Millennials aren't yet 'higher-end' in terms of wine purchasing power. Yet they are more adventurous and promiscuous in their wine tastes, and my guess is changing tastes in premium segments are largely driven from the ground up.


The Wine Market Council crunched the numbers and discovered some surprising results. We already know wine drunk per head is relatively low in the US, but the fact more than one-third of Americans don't touch it at all is news to me. That's either a great untapped opportunity, or a structural obstacle. I'm tempted towards the former, given 21 per cent do drink other alcoholic beverages like beer. Just 14 per cent are teetotal.


More astonishingly, the corresponding figures for teetotallers in the UK (in 2011) are 18 per cent for women and 10 per cent for men. Were I a betting man, I would have bet heavily on Americans being the more abstemious.


So the proportionate market opportunity in both countries is similar in size (phew). Given the United States' arcane inter-state licensing regulations, a national online wine retailer has a more straightforward route to market over here than over there (double phew).


What about this premium segment?


The research then looks at who is paying more than $20 for a bottle of wine, and what bottles they're buying. As a proportion of the market these people amount to just 5 per cent of wine buyers, though roughly one-third would consider it.


We need some context here, because a straight exchange rate is inappropriate. By their reckoning, we should approach this with bottles of wine worth £12 in mind, when in reality £10 is a more appropriate target. Higher taxes in the UK are only part of the equation; our invidious discount culture, rapaciously encouraged by supermarkets (albeit on the wane) has partly made Brits less willing to break into double figures. Yet historically, with relatively easy access to European markets and cheap New World producers in the former Dominions, we've become accustomed to cheaper wine with or without supermarkets.


Back to the figures.


  • Men and women equally are happy to move up to the premium segment. That seems fair enough, though very anecdotally we're probably seeing slightly more men 'passing through our doors' and purchasing more expensive bottles. Saying that, further anecdotal feedback suggests women prefer to buy their wines in person than online. Indeed, more often than not when we do events and market stalls, female buyers are in a majority.
  • France, Italy and New Zealand give these premium buyers the most pleasure; while South Africa offers the most disappointment. Does this correlate to the UK market? For South Africa's sake, I hope not, because there are some superb wines coming out of South Africa. For us, these are typically where producers, such as Vondeling or Painted Wolf, are trying to forge an authentically African identity rather than have too much of an eye on Old Europe.
  • Yet France's wines are seen as the worst value in the world. This is sadly too often true wherever you go, though seen through a Bordeaux-shaped (and perhaps burgundian) lens. It depends where you go to buy your French wine, and what French wine you look for. Yes, it's difficult to find good value Bordeaux in the £10 to £20 category. Jancis Robinson recently wrote, "some of the best red wine value to be had is now in the lower reaches of red bordeaux [and] value-conscious wine lovers ignore bordeaux at their peril." She then recommends a claret costing £23.50. I'm as annoyed as anyone when people ignorantly assume "low price" and "value" to be synonymous, but this is pushing it! However, look elsewhere in France - not least the Loire valley - and there's fabulous value to be found at prices more people will be comfortable with, such as £10 to £15.
  • Austria, Argentina and New Zealand are seen as having the best value wines. There is much justification for this. Austria is still suffering a 1980s hangover, yet offers incredible value. Johanneshof Reinisch Rotgipfler 2012 at £13.99? A steal (albeit out of stock at the moment - sorry! More from Johanneshof coming soon). This is a fabulous native grape variety (Rotgipfler) with fewer than 100 hectares under vine. But it's Austrian. New Zealand is a key case study of price-versus-value. There isn't really such a thing as 'cheap' New Zealand wine, yet Brits are consistently willing to drink it by the bucket-load because they see it as great value, even if just about all decent bottles hover around £9-12 (especially with reds, with decent Kiwi Pinot even higher).
  • Interestingly, US premium drinkers buy a lot of wine from Oregon, Washington and New York because it is deemed good value.I'm thrilled by this, because we do a lot of American wines and none from California. We're big on New York, increasingly so in Oregon and Virginia. The downside? Once the stuff gets here, it's quite a fair bit dearer. Therein a big disconnect between the US and British markets. American wine drinkers like their country's own wines; Brits might like them, but few can afford them.
  • Lastly, in the US premium drinkers use the internet for wine reviews a lot more than non-premium drinkers: 46 per cent versus 7 per cent using Wine-Searcher. I'd wager there's a similar split in the UK. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the average price of a bottle sold tends to be higher online than in a shop. These figures will always be distorted by the supermarkets' presence, but probably in both directions given the supermarkets' rapid expansion online.

So can we learn much from these findings? A bit here, a bit there, and not much in between. Demographic and generational trends are felt similarly in the UK and the US across multiple sectors, whether technological, in entertainment or for luxury goods - all of which have relevance to an online wine retailer in particular. But how those trends relate to wine consumption is unclear. The US has a domestic wine scene that far outstrips what we have in Britain. It also has a very different retail environment, albeit with the same sort of discounting pressures from larger retailers.

What the research hasn't looked at is how or where people are buying premium wine in the US. The big online theme over there at the moment is the 'flash sale', led by websites such as Lot18, Wine.Woot and Wine Till Sold Out. This is allegedly driven by interest among Millennials - adventurous with wine and comfortable with technology. Lot18 tried and failed (or rashly committed suicide) in the UK in back in 2012; DropWines made a good go at something similar last year, but sadly appears to have hit a wall.

All in all, wine retailers in the UK take lessons from the US at their peril, but here are my key takeaways.

  1. It is worth taking heed of innovative trends in technology and marketing, such as delivering concise and relevant information rather than a textbook. This is crucial online, where people just want to know a concise story, what the wine's like, and why they should buy it (particularly if it's over £10). For the most part, they don't want to be educated and they really couldn't give a monkey's about the pH level. Events will also play a massive part in the marketing of wine to new generations of drinkers. And by events, that shouldn't always mean a room full of long tables with open bottles.
  2. Buyers of premium wine in the US and in the UK are becoming more and more value-conscious. A number of reasons could be behind it. Wine is becoming dearer generally as taxes go up in this country certainly, so if you're going to be paying more anyway, finding the best value in a certain price bracket becomes more imperative. A mixture of adventurous sourcing by merchants and sommeliers, as well as some thoughtful journalism (in print and online) is promoting new styles, tastes and origins to people, and in particular pointing out that something off the beaten track is less likely to carry a 'name premium' like Rioja or Bordeaux.
  3. Related to that, as 'value' replaces the blunter tool of 'price', merchants must sell more than a bottle. The transaction needs to be an experience. Tell a story. Commodities have prices; lasting relationships between a merchant and a consumer have value. Deep discounting just promotes commoditisation, erodes brands and cheapens that relationship. Ultimately, it's about making consumers believe in better. It's something we are already aware of, to an extent; but in Britain we're still playing catch-up.

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