When I started out drinking wine, supermarket wine ranges were extremely variable. There were some terrible wines: wines that made you gag. As a student, and thus a bottom-feeder, the challenge was to find something cheap and drinkable. It was hard.
Then, as I got to know a little about wine, I started buying more expensive bottles. At this time, the supermarket wine aisles did have some interesting things at the high end.
Now, things have changed. The wines are much more consistent, and it is rare to find a really bad wine in a UK supermarket. Quality has got much more consistent, particularly at the bottom. But it’s also true that at the middle and high end there are fewer genuinely good wines, of the sort that interest a geek.
And it is easy for wine writers like me to put the boot into supermarket wine buying for championing consistent but bland wines, or favouring big brands, or using price promotion as a sales mechanic. We do it all the time.
What we should ask ourselves is this: how good a job would we do if we were parachuted into a buying job with a major supermarket? My predictions are as follows.
First, we’d try to reshape the wine offering. We might try to cut it down in size, to offer a smaller, well chosen choice of wines, to try to lessen the confusion the customer feels when faced with the wall of wine. Then we’d notice a drop in sales as the consumer loses confidence in our reduced offering. While the wall of wine is confusing, it is reassuring: this is a supermarket that takes wine seriously.
Then we’d try to get rid of some of the big brands. We’d find that there’s a reason they are big, when we looked at our figures and saw that overall sales were falling.
We’d try to introduce some interesting wines, of the sorts that we like: perhaps from new countries, or made with interesting varieties. And we’d list a few more £10+ wines. Shortly we’d find ourselves sitting on unsold stock, because our customers aren’t interested in more expensive wines from lesser known regions or varieties.
Time for a buying trip. We have to source some new wines from the range, but we suddenly find that the choice of good wine at the 90 cent per bottle price point we have to hit to be able to list it at £5 and in the volumes needed to supply all our stores isn’t that great. A reality check.
By this stage, we’d be in danger of losing our job because our department wasn’t making enough money.
Very soon, we’d realise that: (a) there is a reason that supermarket wine ranges look the way they do; (b) supermarket buyers aren’t stupid, and are doing a pretty good job; and (c) you and I are not the customer base they are aiming for – there are relatively few with a real interest in wine and if they tried to target us they’d go broke.
Look at the major supermarkets and their wine ranges. They look pretty similar. That’s because they are run by smart people who know how to sell wine, and whose jobs depend on them being able to make money from those aisles. We may not like it, as wine lovers, but this is what the majority of customers want: the supermarkets have researched this extensively, and they are working in a very competitive industry.
[So how does this square with my assertion that 90% of all wine is crap? Perhaps, as has been pointed out, crap is a harsh term and dull might be better. What I mean is that from the perspective of a wine lover, 90% of all wines are uninteresting, and not worth bothering with. To me, they are a bit crap. That’s fine, it leaves 10%, and I am lucky in that I know where to find them.]