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The Wall of Wine, Stories, and Consumer Psychology


I was on the panel of a wine event last week, and one of my fellow panelists was from one of the nation’s biggest Big Box grocery retailers. I asked him, “Will the infamous Wall of Wine be always with us?” and he answered, “Yes. Retail is here to stay.”

Indeed it is, as a basic function of human interaction: I buy something wholesale and sell it to you retail, for a profit. But as experience shows us, retail changes its external face constantly; and the Big Box, with its Wall of Wine, will not be with us forever—at least, in the form we know it.

The reason things are changing is simple to understand: Millennials.

“Online retailers have a huge edge with Millennials,” according to this 2013 study which took the example of a popular woman’s athletic tank top to illustrate Millennials’ disinclination to buy things in stores. “’I logged on, I found my Under Armour top, I pressed a button and got it 4 days later,’” a representative of the company that sponsored the study air-quoted a hypothetical Millennial on her satisfaction with the online experience. He added, “The younger respondents got, the less physical experience mattered” to them.

Contrast that with the number-one reason Baby Boomers cite for their preference to shop in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores: “instant ownership,” with 79% of them in the study citing that “as the most appealing attribute of any retailer, online or off.” This is why, according to the study, even though Amazon is the world’s biggest online retailer, its earnings in 2012 were only 13% of what Walmart cleared.

Baby Boomers may not have a problem with supermarkets, but it’s clear their children and grandchildren do. But Big Box heavyweights like Safeway aren’t about to roll over and go away. Instead, the study predicts, stores will “integrate the digital with the physical,” acquiring “online characteristics.” Such as? “Expect to see a place to pick up the stuff you bought online,” in a “retail locker” concept of retailing. Imagine buying a couple bottles of wine online from any site, and then—instead of waiting for days for it to be delivered to your house (and you might not even be home when it comes)—it will go straight to the “retail locker,” where it will not only be waiting for you, but will be presented to you “by people who like people,” not the often surly floor staff of supermarkets.

That sounds like a pleasant experience. What are the implications for the Wall of Wine? Not good. If inventory is purchased just-in-time, stores will have no reason to buy thousands of bottles they don’t even know they’ll be able to sell. The Wall of Wine will vanish, for the simple reason it will have outlived its usefulness.

* * *

And then there was the tasting I went to on Sunday at a local wine shop. It was of various coastal California Pinot Noirs. One of them (Porter-Bass 2012) started out smelling very funky, a phenomenon everyone who remarked on the wine noticed. (The funkiness, whatever the cause, blew off after a while.) I didn’t particularly care for it. Our host, however, liked it quite a bit, and explained, in some detail, the winery’s biodynamic approach to grapegrowing. Her preference for this wine was apparent to the guests, most of whom were amateurs with only little knowledge of wine. After she was finished speaking, one of the guests, who had noted the funkiness with what I thought was a critical attitude, said, “I thought it was too funky, until I heard your story. Now, I love it.”

Well, the top of my little head exploded at that. You know that we’ve been talking about “stories” quite a bit here at Stories are the new black of marketing: the latest, hottest trend in the industry. Until my experience at that tasting, I had not perhaps appreciated the power of a good story, told by a trusted authority figure, to completely change the thinking of someone else. And not just to change their thinking: to actually change the way something smells and tastes to them!

I am in awe. Have to think more about this one. The host’s story didn’t work on me, but I’m not your typical wine consumer. Are average wine drinkers so unsure of their own perceptions that a testimonial from an expert can redirect them? Or does a good story, told passionately by a believer, somehow open up the mind of a skeptic so that he can perceive reality on a higher plane? If the latter is true, then what about a good story told passionately by someone who doesn’t even believe it, but is telling it only in order to sell a wine?

I don’t know the answers. There may be none. There may be different answers for different people. But I think all of us had better bone up on our story-telling abilities.

  1. I wonder how to reconcile this with the rise of consumer reviews. If I buy a vacuum cleaner, I don’t really need a producer/retailer story because I’ve got 127 user reviews on Amazon with 4.3 stars.

    Maybe reviews do a QPR triage and then the storyteller closer is brought in?

  2. “Are average wine drinkers so unsure of their own perceptions that a testimonial from an expert can redirect them?”

    And redirect them how? I wouldn’t rule out the social pressures involved, which may motivate people to say something at a tasting but doesn’t necessarily motivate them to purchase.

    In my own (amateur) experience, a lot of people attend wine tastings with the idea that the point is not to explore their own palate but to learn the “correct” opinions about the wines. So if the host or other authority figure says this wine has tar and roses on the nose, then they dutifully scribble “tar and roses” on their tasting sheet, whether they experienced that themselves or not.

    Imagine you’re an amateur with little knowledge of wine, attending a tasting hosted by a “wine expert.” You taste one particular wine, and when other people remark that it’s a little “funky-tasting,” you feel comfortable enough to note that you didn’t really care for it, either.

    Then the “wine expert” gives a long speech about how the funkiness isn’t a flaw but a deliberate choice by the winemaker that expresses the terroir of the region etc. etc… and suddenly you feel like your opinion was “wrong.” You thought it was a bad-tasting wine, but it turns out that it’s “really” a sophisticated and innovative wine that you just lacked the knowledge to appreciate.

    A lot of people in that situation are tempted to try to recover their “pride” by nodding and saying yeah, I see your point now, I like it after all.

    But that doesn’t mean that they’re really convinced that it’s good, or that the next time this person is in that wine shop, they’ll reach for that bottle of “funky” pinot noir.

  3. Retail lockers or not, that wall of wine at grocery stores like Knob Hill/Raley’s still has a big mark-up. For example, just saw a bottle of Meomi Pinot on the wall for $28.99. Buy 6 and the price drops to $23.99 a bottle. A simple online search via smartphone would yield a price of $18.99 per bottle, and show you where you could find it locally for that same price, say Total Wine and More or BevMo. Millennials have grown up with this resource coded into their brains. Baby-boomers for the most part, don’t even think about utilizing it, or just find it too much of a hassle.

  4. @Kaesling, I certainly agree with you re expectation of information access… but I *think* the bigger question is how you picked that bottle of Meomi Pinot Noir out of the hundreds and hundreds of bottles there. Price evaluation is a pretty straightforward calculus (is it worth it to me to drive across town to save $5 x 6 = $30?). But what about that bottle of Pinot next to it that you’ve never heard of for $15.99 that is actually a better bottle than the Meomi? That’s the hard part.

  5. On first point – don’t assume “millennials” will remain static and retailers will be the only ones to change.

    On 2nd point – why the surprise? We’ve been told by “experts” for a long time that hard, bitey and overly tannic wines are “good” (maybe so wineries could sell them younger and harsher, a sacrifice to the gods of commerce?). And Americans have bought into that, extolling their virtues and declaring how much they LOVE these “big (nearly undrinkable) wines” with their burgers and steaks and … .

  6. @michaelbrill
    Meomi was just a brand I already knew the price of and when cruising by the wine wall glanced up to see it and chuckled at the price. A ‘better’ bottle for $15.99 would surely be marked up as well. The wine wall will only be around in ten years, at a quarter of its current size, for those who don’t plan their wine buying in advance and resort to last-minute, spur-of-the-moment purchases because they somehow still live outside of the ever-growing ZIP code footprint of alcohol-specific box stores.

  7. KCPhillips says:

    I no longer buy from retail-only outlets. Ninety percent direct from wineries and maybe 10 percent from a couple of online retailers in San Francisco. The last time I looked at a wall of wine in a local grocery outlet, it left me a bit dizzy–an indecipherable, illogically-presented experience. I guess I’ve become a 65 year-old wine-buying millennial.

  8. A story is important with all forms of art… A sense of history, purpose, intention–all part of enjoying wine. We tell our stories because they are truly relevant to the consumption experience. I wouldn’t call that manipulation (even if a manufactured story) or weakness of conviction on part of the consumer.

    What you “like” is a function of expectation. If you have only tasted very inexpensive California pinot, your expectation might be strawberry/fruity. You taste your first Burgundy–do you “like” it? Or earthiness catches you by surprise at first. When expectation exists on multiple dimensions, there’s just more to like! An intellectual and sensual turn-on all at the same time! I love wine for this very reason, along with it improving my meal…

    Now take writing; I so love this blog… Hearing about Gus enhances my experience! The blog is of course very well-written but knowing about the love between man and rescued pupdog tells me this writer is a super cool guy with a big heart, so I love his perspective even more! I relate! I like!

    I imagine that a sincere sommelier-like retailer will always be in style in any shape/form. One who truly listens and offers great suggestions and information, including the story. Interestingly, big retailers like Safeway are installing these people in the wine aisle to help consumers navigate ‘the wall.’

  9. Disagree with the notion of retail lockers for millennials. Why? Because it ignores other powerful demographics of the millennial generation that will impede adoption of the retail locker concept.

    Millennials are not buying cars. Just ask Detroit. Having a car is a necessary prerequisite for the retail locker concept to work. You can’t lug home a case of wine, plus all the other stuff from your retail locker if you don’t have a car.

    Still not convinced? Look at all of the car-sharing services that have cropped up (Zipcar, RelayRides, etc) and other transportation alternatives like Uber and Lyft. Millennials don’t see the need for a car.

    If a millennial is going to go through the trouble of renting a ZipCar to pick up their wine at the retail locker, they are better off ordering it direct.

    Why are millennials not buying cars? They aren’t making as much money as the Gen x’ers before them, as a result huge amounts of them are living at home well into their 30s, and they have massive college debt. Again, if millenials buy wine, they’ll end up doing it directly, not through a retail locker.

    Besides, millennials don’t want to go to a retail location, period. They don’t want to leave their house to shop. This notion of a retail locker is all a pipe dream by brick-and-mortar retailers to try and maintain a level of relevance in an otherwise eroding presence.

    I think the author is falling victim to what he complains about later in the article. That hearing a story from “Experts” about the forthcoming retail locker means it should and will happen. Instead of paying attention to your own common sense, you listen to what so-called experts say and parrot back their message. Retail lockers don’t make sense. The author is every bit an amateur in marketing logistics as the amateur millennials with an unrefined palate he points out. Both are susceptible to parroting back what experts tell them.

    On a deeper level, millennials are a generation who had everything planned out and explained for them. For example, they didn’t organize sports teams by themselves. The parents enrolled them into a league. Much of what they did growing up was prescribed for them. They were told what to do, what to think, and how to do it. They took explanations from authority figures as gospel. Very little personal initiative and sense of self-discovery. They do not apply their critical thinking skills in many aspects of their decisionmaking.

    Why would this be different with wine? Some expert tells millennials that a crappy wine tastes a certain way because of some process that matches a buzzword they were taught in school and they adjust their physical perceptions to fit the narrative they are told. And, going forward, this narrative (they accepted as gospel) explains away the inferior taste of the wine. You see this every day in consumer products. Wine is no different.

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