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Trick Of The Trade

Whether your tastes favour David Blaine – the quixotic and unusual – or the more mundane Paul Daniels, there is a grand illusion being perpetrated within retail today both in the on- and off-trade, writes Liz Aked, Spar (UK)

Nobody is denying that the racks and shelves, bars and restaurants are filled with hundreds of wines from different countries, grape varieties and vintages, made with differing vinification methods and with grapes grown in different conditions, purporting to offer the consumer “choice.” Clearly, this is choice in the broadest sense. However, if you examine this phenomenon a little closer an insidious sleight of hand is in evidence directly challenging this notion. Some of the reasons that this might be the case have been identified below.

Over the past few years the well documented consolidation of the supply base has been matched in pace by the corresponding reduction in buying points. Or vice versa. Put simply, this means that there are fewer companies able to supply the needs of a smaller number of, generally bigger, retailers. This has resulted in a dilution of specialisation and knowledge of potential options of supply on both sides and the consumer is the looser in terms of choice.

Furthermore, on the subject of supply, why has the consumer not noticed how many wines come from the same bottling plant, be that in mainland Europe or the UK regardless of the original source of the wine? This is true across a much wider selection of retailers than may be imagined and directly results in a dulling of identity.

The rise of branded wine has been credited with demystifying the wine market and making the consumer’s purchase decision easier and less risky, and there is merit to this argument. However, what has been gained in consistency has been lost in quality and diversity. Has anybody ever stopped to count the number of Chardonnay and Chardonnay blends at one point of purchase, be they branded or retailer label?

And finally the grandest delusion of them all, the retail price point. How soon will it be before the consumer recognises the trickery involved with socalled promotions, ranging from buy-one-get-one-free to three-for-the-price-of-two, with the added attraction of an inflated base price for a single retail unit.

Whether you believe that choice and diversity has been reduced or not, or whether you believe that any of this actually matters, retailers have convinced themselves that their arguments for pursuing these strategies are valid.

Retailers will say that ranges are built by consumer consensus, and this is true, but naturally this produces the lowest common denominator in terms of depth of range and quality of product.

It is helpful to get all lines bottled at one site as this reduces the cost of distribution, makes consolidation easier and helps stock control. All undoubtedly true, but this is a benefit to the retailers and to their profitability, not to the consumers and the choices they have to make.

Then there is the constant pressure to reduce costs, increase margin and advance profitability while still ensuring that the consumer gets a semblance of value for money.

Shelves are inelastic and there is a constant competition for space with he who pays the piper enjoying the rewards.

Are there any solutions? Well, once the internet and home shopping were the great white hopes for consumer choice but, judging by the intense pressure of some internet site operators’ hard sell, it is not that simple.

Purchasing wine in the prevailing conditions has become too difficult for the consumer and who is to blame retailers for encouraging the deal-junkie mentality by eliminating the risk of purchase? Wine has now become an almost personal sell for many experimenting consumers, with retailers unable to be bold due to pressures of budgets and profitability.

Unless retailers and suppliers alike can find new ways to enthuse the consumer, providing value for money and genuine choice, they will be instigating the greatest magic trick of them all – the consumer vanishing act. 

 Liz Aked is trading controller for wines at Spar (UK) Ltd and director of Heard It Through the Grapevine

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