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Wine is the most confusing product to buy

I have too much choice... but please don’t stop showing me new things!

Allen Gibbons IWSC Group

Wine is the most confusing product to buy. There we go I’ve said it, despite having worked in the drinks industry for almost 20 years and despite sterling efforts by the supermarkets with signage and information, I’m confused, and I’m reasonably certain that I’m not the only one. 

Think of it like this, when you go food shopping there are certain products that you can probably buy without too much thought, milk being an obvious example; how much do I need and do I drink full fat, semi skimmed or skimmed? There are other options available, but broadly that’s a pretty good outline of the decision making progress which is navigated well because of easily recognisable coloured caps on the packaging.

Looking quickly at there is a whopping total of 831 items in the wine category, by comparison in the beer and cider section the figure is just 524, including the various multipacks available for the big brands.

Why are there so many more wine products on the shelves when wine drinkers share only 17% of the market? The fact is that wine consumption has grown over the past 10 years, growing faster than the total beverage alcohol overall. With this rise in demand more producers are shipping their products out further and wider.

Wine is unusual in the number of ways one differentiates itself from another creating more choice for the consumer; type (red, white, sparkling, fortified) where it is made (not just the country but the region or sub region), what it is made from (grape variety), when it was made (vintage) and of course price. When you multiply those differentiators by each other you are left with a whole lot of choice.

Wine reminds me in many ways of cable and satellite television, decisions were so much simpler with three terrestrial channels but... and it’s a very big but, would I give up my choice for that simplicity? No, I wouldn’t because I’m used to having that choice now. I do, however, have an ever nagging doubt that maybe I’m missing the best thing on TV because it may be tucked away on a channel that I have never watched, or perhaps I missed the preview. But enough of the diversion, back to wine.

As people we are prey to two very different forces; the desire for novelty and the desire for simplicity. Therefore it is not surprising that campaigns and initiatives designed to help us indulge our desire for novelty, but make it easy, work well. Providing awards to wine producers and products provides the consumer with the assurance that the product has been trialled and tested by expert panels so that they can feel confident in the quality of the product. The IWSC awards quality in the form of medals displayed on the wine bottles, easily recognisable to the consumer, and appearing on almost 6 million bottles worldwide to date.

There are good examples of wines wedding themselves to foods and occasions that makes the choice easier for us. Take, for example, Wines of Argentina who have had good success with marrying malbec with steak or perhaps the granddaddy of them all, in our minds, champagne is a drink completely entwined with celebration. Even with the growth of prosecco in recent years we still talk of a champagne moment!

Communication is key for producers to help consumers understand the kind of product they are looking for. One way that the IWSC Group supports producers to communicate more effectively with consumers is through education, promotion and consultancy and with a touch point of 1,500 producers in the last year we hope to reduce the confusion that people face when standing in the wine aisle. 

One of the biggest challenges to companies and countries being able to create real differentiation and make our lives easier is actually how deeply conservative we are in many ways. Coming back to the milk analogy above, 30 years ago milk was delivered in glass bottles to our homes but now we are very happy picking up plastic or carton containers from the supermarket, yet with wine we are accustomed to a glass bottle. Trials with PET have always struggled with the fact that it looks smaller and that bag in box wine represents lower quality wine, though this is not true. Labels are the way that many consumers make their decision in all countries, especially on a white wine we look for pale coloured paper for quality. Until we ourselves are happy with challenging some of the restrictions above the opportunity for differentiation is more limited than in other fields.

So I fear, as a representative focus group of one, many of the diffentiators open to other food and drink manufacturers I am not prepared to accept when buying my wine. However, if you can lodge a simple concept such as port with cheese in my mind it will remain stuck there for many years (though I do like a nice sherry with cheese too!) and yes, having just noticed Croatian Furmint, which I hadn’t seen before, I would like to try that too please, because that’s just how we are!

27 April 2015