Supermarket wine buyers: how are they doing?

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.]

12 comments to Supermarket wine buyers: how are they doing?

  • Nicely written piece Jamie. Supermarket wines, in general, do look pretty similar but you can find a few interesting wines in them. But you sum supermarkets up when you say “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”.

    Wine is part of the supermarkets policy of offering their customers a ‘one stop shop’ and ‘interesting wines’ do not form part of that strategy because they do not have appeal to the average supermarket shopper. Supermarkets make money and wines are part of that money making machine.

    I hope you feel our wines make it into your 10%.

  • I think UK supermarket buyers do a difficult job well. The reason so many people only buy wine at the supermarket is testament to that.

    What supermarkets are not particularly good at is selling wine. That may seem a contradictory statement but most supermarket wine bosses complain about their failure to get customers to trade up or to take notice of anything other than a discounted offer.

    The UK market is more supermarket focused compared to any other country I’ve visited. The supermarkets should actually be selling 99% of wine and they should have an average sale price around £7 if they were really good at selling wine. Look at their domination of meat, cheese and beer and look at how they are able to get customers to trade up in those products and offer diverse choices. Wine is a bit of a failure in comparison. I’d be really interested to know what the margin is on a bottle of wine compared to those products.

  • Daniel

    Nicely said Jamie. Supermarket ranges do look samey and dull across 95% of the range. For all of the reasons you state, this is understandable and entirely reasonable. People are being sold what they want to buy, and wine drinking is higher than ever as a result.

    But, that last 5%… this is where the passion and the skill of the supermarket wine buyer is revealed: the carefully selected line of 50cl sherry; that unexpected kiwi chardonnay in the corner; the own-label blanc-de-blanc that beats the big labels hands down.

    These are the bottles that they are buying for themselves as well as for their customers. These are the bottles that allow them to sleep well at night, content with a job well done.

    And these are the bottles that those of us who know, know to look out for.

  • A very fair assessment, and spot on. You CAN find good wines in supermarkets – indeed you rarely find a bad one. The bigger the store the better chance of finding that hidden gem. It’s when the store format becomes restricted (conveneicece shops, forecourts) that the selection becomes dismal because the pressure in on to deliver widely acceptable and popular brands. I regularly buy wines in supermarkets (and I am a supplier), but rarely, if ever, from a forecourt shop, or small format convenience store. I just can’t find anything I want to drink.

  • Giles

    Sometimes the supermarkets overprice the more interesting stuff and as a result it doesn’t sell. I saw some Villa Maria Reserve Wairau Valley sauvignon blanc in Sainsburys the other day – it was still the 2009 vintage and on sale for £13. I can’t imagine any casual customers wanting to pay £13 for that when the Sainsburys own label Kiwi sav is on special offer at £6.50. The again, “in the know” customers like me won’t pay £13 for an older vintage of this great wine when I can buy it online for £9.99.

  • Nicely written. As you point out, beating down the supermarkets is easy, understanding why they do what they do takes a bit more effort. I also like that you say ‘dull’ instead of ‘bad’. I think bad is unfair but I do wish that there was more attempt made to communicate the difference between the bottom and middle range wines. Mass producing vineyards using phrases like ‘well integrated’ and ‘complex tannin structure’ to describe a 3.99 bottle of plonk really does not help the consumer become more informed.

  • Hi Jamie — I keep being surprised by things in the Co-op: proper German wine; good botrytised W of France ie Montbazillacs or Sauternes; really good Burgundies and Chablis that I’m surprised they can sell — generally a lack of predictability.

  • You are lucky, you have wine in the Supermarket, in most of Canada we don’t 

  • Chris McGovern

    This is something that I’d not really considered before, having found a marvelous local wine merchant who let customers taste wine and are able to pick out interesting bottles that match your tastes.

    Having said that, I’ll be reading your blog a bit more frequently to pick up tips for bottles that they may not be stocking.

    Cheers!

  • Damien

    No-one’s mentioned your Express column Jamie, and no doubt the editor’s demands that wines mentioned therein should be freely available to everyone up and down the country. That’s where the supermarkets true power comes in to play with wine. I remember an anecdote one supplier told me about Booths. At a board meeting Mr Booth looked to his minions and said, “right, we need to get this duty bill down”! Sums up their thinking I think. Roll on that minimum pricing by unit.

  • S.M.

    A well written post Mr. Goode, I think it pretty well sums up what the whole supermarket experience in wine selection and availability has to offer. With the supermarkets having to move stock and reach sales targets rather than offering interesting and unusual wines for the educated wine consumer or geek.

    But I also have to say that not all supermarkets are the same as even within the same chain at different outlets you can find a varying selection of varietals and different countries wines. It has a lot to do with which part of the city the supermarket is and their customer base & buying habits.

    I also like that you said that 90% of wine is dull, I think that’s a more objective view that saying 90% is crap, that might be often true for us wine geeks but not for your average customer.

    As some people above mentioned the real fun bit is going through through the shelves and finding that gem amongst the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah and Chardonnay and finding something you’ve never tried before and can tell your fellow wine geeks about at the next wine tasting or event.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts and wishing you and your family a truly Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year!

    Cheers!

    Solomon Mengeu

  • Antoine

    Hello Jamie,

    I am a french student and the subject of your post is exactly what I try to understand! For my master research, I realize an online survey to understand european consumer habits when people buy wine.

    It ‘s anonym and it takes you less than 5 minutes. It will be very kind of people to answer it.
    The more answers I would collect, the more reliable would be the survey.

    To answer it, follow this link:
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?fromEmail=true&formkey=dFB2ZXBnV0pmdkNpUHItcFFOQnpIU2c6MQ

    Many thanks in advance!
    Antoine

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