Richard Hemming: Know your message
Is your decanter half full or half empty? Some people look at the UK wine trade and see declining sales, punitive tax and low average prices. I prefer to see recovering sales, decelerating duty and everyday affordability.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. In fact, whether optimistic or pessimistic, we can probably agree on the main things the wine trade could do better, and one of the most common complaints is that the wine trade doesn’t communicate well with consumers.
It is certainly true that the majority of UK wine drinkers see wine as confusing and impenetrable, and that, consequently, they rarely leave their comfort zone. That tends to mean choice based on grape (irrespective of origin), brand (irrespective of grape or origin) or price (irrespective of anything).
Most research indicates that recommendations from family or friends carry quite a lot of weight too, whereas advice from wine professionals ranks far lower in terms of influence.
Let’s first determine why this should be a bad thing. We must remember that many consumers simply aren’t interested in being communicated with about wine. They are not buying wine for the purposes of intellectual engagement, and to assume that our duty is to educate their palates is pompous and misplaced.
While it may be true that the organoleptic quality of many best-selling brands is not as good as the kinds of artisanal wines we cherish within the trade, it is similarly wrong to assume this is the primary factor in how people choose wine.
Other factors such as brand values and the sense of a bargain may be just as influential as actual taste in giving pleasure to the drinker. Incidentally, the dominance of discounted brands may well be disadvantageous to the trade for other reasons – pitiful margins throughout the supply chain, for example – but in terms of communication, my point is that this urge to educate the consumer away from such wines is folly. This is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic.
I’m not saying that everything is peachy and we needn’t bother communicating any more, rather that we should revisit what needs saying to whom. Every wine retailer should tailor their communication according to their customers’ needs. For those for whom wine is intimidating, the message should be simple and unthreatening, for more engaged consumers it can be more advanced.
So far so obvious, though people still get it wrong. Furthermore, this applies to every stage of interaction between retailer and customer. That means getting your website, emails and social media presence right so that every online visitor knows immediately what you are offering. In and around the shop itself, your message should be unified and self-explanatory – on posters, chalkboards, POS and promotions as well as through staff.
If this isn’t happening, maybe you should ask yourself what it is you’re actually trying to say in the first place. And when you answer, let’s keep that decanter half full – at the very least.