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Why do scores matter so much to sales people, and so little to buyers?

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I was talking yesterday with someone who’s deep in the wine industry, and he made a remark that surprised me at first, but then, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

I was asking him (as I ask almost everyone these days) if critical scores and reviews still matter, and he said, “To sales forces, yes. To most buyers, no.”

Now, we have to define a couple terms. By “sales forces” he meant the people who actually go out on the road to sell wine. They work for wineries or for distributors. Their job is a hard one: they not only drive (or fly) a lot, they’re trying to sell to buyers who are jaded, who are pitched daily by other sellers, and who demand deals and specials often beyond the ability of sellers to comply with.

By “buyers” he meant the people in decision-making positions, at restaurants or stores, who filter the world’s supply of wine into a single wine list or store offering. That’s a very important job: The world contains approximately a gazillion wineries. A restaurant or store can offer maybe a few hundred different brands (maybe a few thousand, if you’re a BevMo! or some similar big box). Thus, these buyers are coveted among wineries and their sale forces: Whether or not the winery makes any money is largely in their hands.

So why do scores matter so much to sales people, and so little to the actual buyers?

Well, the case against sales people is that they could be selling anything: widgits, or bananas, or components for the space station. Their expertise is in selling and its components: the pitch, the deal, the personal relationship, the profit. Sometimes, sales people are too busy to master the actual intricacies of the wine they’re selling. They speak a different language from sommeliers or conscientious merchants. There’s a limit to how much knowledge they can master about any given wine, so they’re sometimes looking to telegraph information about the wine in a fast, easy way. And the fastest, easiest way to convey such information is to quote a score, preferably from a famous critic. That, they hope, will do the job of selling the wine, without asking them to take too much time and energy into being able to converse about it at a higher level.

I completely understand that attitude. But why don’t buyers attach as much importance to scores as do sellers?

Well, some of them do. Stores or (more rarely) restaurants that are score-driven will have shelf talkers or newsletters that advertise a famous critic’s score, if not actual facsimiles on the wine list. That not only reassures customers that “someone important” liked the wine, even if they don’t know who that someone was (it might have been the wine columnist for the Podunk Shopper’s Guide), it also relieves the restaurant or wine shop of the necessity (and cost) of having someone on the floor who actually knows what she’s talking about.

And even in high-end restaurants and stores, where they go to great lengths to employ knowledgeable people, why would they quote a critic’s score, when they employ people who are perfectly capable of forming their own opinion about the wine?

So we have this divide between sellers and buyers in our wine system, and in my opinion the divide is widening, as buyers are smarter than they’ve ever been, and more and more sellers are out there trying to sell their wine. In fact, it’s a buyer’s market. Never in history has their been such intense competition to land on a wine list or store shelf.

As a former critic, I always was flattered whenever I saw someone using a score of wine to sell wine. Sometimes it was a shelf talker; sometimes it was a newsletter report. Whatever it was, it made me feel good—because someone valued the work I had put into reviewing their wine.

Now that I’m no longer a critic, my feelings are more mixed. I would never, ever disparage the critic’s job. At the same time, I do understand that buyers are less invested in critics than they used to be. They’re trying to figure out ways to sell the wines they’ve bought, and loved, without having to resort to the coincidental opinion of a third party whom they may not necessarily even respect. This disparate choice confronts every buyer in the country with a dilemma. Everywhere I go, I try to understand how these buyers are dealing with that conundrum, and as I learn, I enjoy sharing those lessons with you.

  1. Wow, that’s a fairly broad analysis from the off-hand comment from “someone who’s deep in the wine industry.” A few notes (constrained to the $14+ world):

    * (Retail) buyers don’t care about points? Huh? Of course they do. I get 20+ email offers a day from retailers and basically 100% of them list points. 93 points for $25 (40% off) is the formula for most high-volume fine wine retailers.

    * Why are retail salespeople lazy if they use points in their sales efforts? Their job is to sell, and if there is a trusted third party who said it’s a good wine, then it’d be insane for them to ignore that. That isn’t lazy… that’s smart.

    * “buyers are smarter than they’ve ever been” … ??? Buyers are as confused as they’ve ever been. It is impossible for someone to navigate the wall of wine based on personal knowledge. Even a reformed critic like yourself is unlikely to make a great decision (say, top 10% QPR) when faced with 1,000 wines.

    Scores matter. Scores are good. Scores triage 1,000 wines to a manageable number. Yeah, you can quibble whether Parker’s palate is a good palate for *you*, but partial information is better than no information at all.

    Scores are what separate us from animals.

  2. James Rego says:

    Personally, I don’t rely on scores unless I can identify and relate with a particular critic. If I can’t do this, the score is meaningless to me. I rely more on my experience with a particular producer to guide me. I have found certain wine merchants to be very reliable in their recommendations.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    The Willy Loman sales rep calling on stores and restaurants is given an edict: selling X number cases of Y wine (preselected by senior management at the distributor) as part of his/her monthly quota.

    Now multiply that by they number of wines in the sales rep’s “chill bag” when calling on accounts in his/her sales territory.

    How many of these sales reps had a say in the monthly wine selection? None. (It is a top-down decision by senior management at the distributor.)

    How many of these sales reps have first hand experience tasting previous vintages of the chill bag wines, and know how they age? None. (The wines are generally new additions to the distributor’s portfolio.)

    The sales rep may have tasted the chill bag sample bottle for the first time just hours before hitting the road, and putting shoe leather on pavement.

    So in the absence of having any say over the wine selection, and any first hand experience with the brand, the third-party endorsement by a recognized wine critic is one of the few selling aids in the rep’s toolbox.

    Store buyers increasingly sell off of reviews, instead of establishing themselves in the minds of the public as “opinion leaders” and “tastemakers” and “wine educators” and “experts.”

    That’s the path of picking the low-hanging fruit.

    Restaurant owner-buyers are food experts, not necessarily wine experts. Wine critic reviews give them a sense of assurance that the drinking experience will be a welcomed one by their dining patrons.

    (Anecdotal aside: in the early days of mainframe computers, the running joke was: “No one [on the client-side] ever got fired buying an IBM.” Procuring a name brand product gave the buyer “political cover” for making a decision many times outside of his/her expertise as say the CFO, in an era that predated CIOs.)

    The risk-averse consumer is likewise not a wine expert. (S/he doesn’t subscribe to wine magazines, and couldn’t tell you who Parker or Laube or Heimoff or Tanzer or Galloni is.) S/he simply wants a good drinking experience to complement today’s meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs dinner. So if a wine critic’s tout on the shelf talker or neck hanger says the wine is good (connoted by a 90+ point score) . . . and the price is within her/his budget . . . then that’s “good enough” during her/his trip to the local grocery store.

    Recall the statistic that there are roughly 35 million day-in-and-day-out wine drinkers in the United States. And Wine Spectator captures about 350,000 — or 1% — of them as annual subscribers.

    Only the “One Percenters” subscribe follow wine reviews.

  4. Sales people are generally lazy now-a-days and don’t want to actually hand-sell unique, mostly small lot wines. They want to simply spew out, “91 points WS” and expect the public to eat it up and load up their cart. The art of selling wine is gone.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Might I infer that “Randy” above comes with the last name Caparoso?

    I came across a wonderful book on retail salesmanship:

    “No Thanks, I’m Just Looking: Sales Techniques for Turning Shoppers into Buyers”

    Link: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118153405.html

    (I wish I could find a link to an executive summary to embed in this comment.)

    No one is a “born salesman.” It is an art that has to be mastered.

    “No Thanks” provides a check list of stages a salesperson moves through when greeting and chatting up a retail customer:

    ~~ Getting Your Act Together Before You Take It to the Selling Floor
    ~~ Opening the Sale
    ~~ Probing
    ~~ The Demonstration
    ~~ The Trial Close
    ~~ Handling Objections
    ~~ Closing the Sale
    ~~ Confirmatations & Invitations

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