Too much choice?

This is not a blog about a specific wine but a broader comment about supermarkets and their stocking policies. I am excluding Majestic, who can be regarded as specifically a drinks retailer rather than a general retailer, from these observations.

Supermarkets, we are told, account for 8 in 10 bottles of wine purchased in the UK. These retailers changed wine buying dramatically. Customers, who probably felt intimidated going into a traditional wine merchant in the 1960s/70s, were able to make choices without having to show their ignorance to someone behind a counter in the library-like atmosphere of the wine shop. Not having to talk to someone probably felt empowering.

No verbal advice being available also spawned a change in the details on the wine label. The small back label was enlarged with details of grape, a scale of dryness (which also appeared on the shelves), food matchings and some appropriately evocative mood descriptions. The details the wine merchant might have spoken about (if he condescended to do so) were now encapsulated on a piece of paper.

… and the prices seemed lower as economies of scale in the production and shipping processes came into effect.

… and the government picked up more duty as the sales climbed.

Winners all round, then?

Well, even if we ignore the closures of wine merchants and the lack of some measure of control on alcohol sales, I’m not sure if the customer is any better off.

The choice that the supermarkets present customers with is vast. Ten to fifteen metres of shelving – for red wines, doubled when the whites are added, five metres for fortified wines – and all four tiers high. That’s a lot of bottles. And a lot of bottles of similar, if not identical, styles. There are, let’s face it, for most people, a finite number of tastes that can be enjoyed.

What’s the result when customers are faced with so much choice? Confusion and even nervousness. Customers avoid choice. Instead of taking a risk with the myriads of unknowns, customers stick with the tried and tested. That might be the comfort of well known brands; foreign names they’re comfortable pronouncing; heavily discounted wines; the wine they had last time. If the shortage of time to spend shopping is added in, then the choice becomes even less considered.

What would happen if the supermarkets reduced the choice available? In my opinion, the customers’ actions wouldn’t change.  The same amount of wine would be purchased. The stores’ stock-holdings would drop. The wines would move off the shelves more quickly and we wouldn’t have, as I witnessed in a store recently, six different Chablis on the same shelf.

This is where Lidl and Aldi buyers have been astute. Focussed ranges, awareness of significant style differences and use of well-known wine regions.

Next time you visit Tescos, Sainsburys, Asda or Marks and Spencers count the number of different Proseccos on sale. If you haven’t got something more urgent to do, that is.






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