China wine industry suffers ‘shakeout’

Bottled wine imports into China declined last year, marking the first negative growth in the modern history of vinous shipments into the country.

china_flag-350x350Between January and June last year there was a 5.7% drop in bottled wine imports into China, according to Ian Ford, co-founder and general manager at Summergate, one of China’s leading wine importers and distributors.

Speaking at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair in November, and basing such information on China customs statistics, he stated that this move backwards was a first in China’s history.

“This [six-month period] is the first period of decline of shipments into China in the modern history of the market,” he said.

Continuing, he said that during 2014 “almost 800 importers have dropped out of the industry”, marking a “strong trend towards consolidation, and a shakeout of those that got into the market because of a gold rush”.

Highlighting just how great the surge in importer numbers had been, he said that between 2006 and 2012 the amount of companies bringing wine into China had grown from just over 800 to more than 5,000.

Ford also said that Summergate had forecast a slowdown in the imported wine business in China before the headlines started to break in 2013.

“We felt there was a correction on the horizon,” he said, before highlighting the scale of the decline: wine imports went from 50-70% year on year growth, to just 5% in 2013.

Blaming the slowdown on China’s austerity campaign, he drew attention to the key dates in the crackdown on high living and luxury gift giving among the political elite in the country.

While most people believe this began in November 2012 with the transition of power from Hu Jintao to former vice-president Xi Jinping, Ford said that the changes could be traced to around March in the same year, when the scandal involving former communist party chief Bo Xilai and the murder of British national Neil Heywood started to unfold – which you can read more about here.

“Bo Xilai was trialled publicly on TV, and that triggered scrutiny of abuses of power in all levels of government, so we saw a tightening up before the austerity measures were announced,” said Ford.

Lafite

China’s days of drinking ’82 Lafite are definitely over, believes Ian Ford

He then stressed that because “one of the first things” done by Xi Jinping was to “announce his austerity measures”, the crackdown began just ahead of Chinese New Year, which “is a very big time for the wine business, with a lot of entertaining and gift giving”.

Consequently, a “collapse in demand” coincided with “shipments for a big period”, according to Ford.

Indeed, in December 2012, Xi Jinping “specifically prohibited alcohol consumption and gift giving,” said Ford, adding that by 2013, 182,000 party officials had been “punished for corruption, extravagance and abuse of power”.

Echoing a previous report from the drinks business, Ford said that although many in the industry “felt that the campaign wouldn’t last, this has absolutely not been the case, and in fact it heightened in intensity in the beginning of 2014, when tens of thousands of officials were arrested.”

Continuing, he said that the crackdown on corruption and extravagance among communist party members, “is still very much happening”.

Among the restrictions are a ban on “all unnecessary meetings and empty speeches,” said Ford, because “there was a culture of conferences and meetings so officials could have huge banquets with lots of fancy wines”.

The impact of this has not just been felt among the very finest brands, he said.

“People think that the austerity campaign is an effort to go after the party official drinking ’82 Lafite, but it’s much more broad based than that, it is aimed at all levels of government, and all elements that are unnecessary, not just the uber luxury.”

As for the effect in figures, Ford noted that government spending on meetings – “which means banquets” – had fallen by over 50%, while over 50 hotels had asked to be downgraded from 5 stars to 4 so they could attract government business – one of the austerity measures bans officials from using 5 star hotels.

As for China’s own wine business, comparing 2012 with 2013, Ford said that Château Changyu had seen its sales decline by 23%, Dynasty Fine Wines was down 18%, while China Foods (the drinks division of COFCO, which owns China’s largest wine brand, Great Wall) had suffered a 52% drop.

“The domestic market has been affected too, it’s not just the likes of Lafite and Louis XIII [Rémy Martin Cognac],” he said.

Nevertheless, looking at more recent numbers, Ford also recorded that the imported wine market in China was showing signs of recovery, noting that the decline of almost 6% during the first half of 2014 had fallen to -1.5% by September.

He also observed a “rebound in the on-trade”, and said that his own company had experienced a 23% growth in wine sales to hotels and restaurants from July to September, stressing that it was “this channel that was heavily impacted by the austerity campaign”.

However, it is ecommerce that Ford believes is “the most exciting area” for China’s wine business, and said that Summergate’s sales of wine to ecommerce operators has tripled in the past three years.

With 780 million internet users in China, Ford said that the potential of this channel was enormous, stressing that ecommerce provided Chinese wine drinkers with access to a wide range of good wines at fair prices, wherever these consumers are based.

“The growth of ecommerce means that wine is available to the further reaches of the country, whereas previously consumers only had access to wine in their local superstore where the options to buy well-stored wine that was well-priced was virtually nil.”

Furthermore, through the use of online wine retailers, Chinese consumers “aren’t forced to stand in a shop wondering who’s watching you trying to work out what to buy,” he said.

In short, Ford said that China would not revert to the “salad days of ’82 Lafite”, and said that the “landscape had changed”, observing “tremendous dynamism in the market”, and recording “a strong and growing core of wine drinkers in China in all corners of the market, and this has nothing to do with government extravagance.”

Notably, he admitted that the demand for fine wine in China was probably to some extent hyped, but so too was the scale of the decline today.

“It wasn’t as good as they said it was then, and it’s not as bad as they say it is now”.

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