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Solving the retail paradox

Published:  18 January, 2007

Regular columnist Michael Paul weighs up the dilemma for wine retailers in achieving consumer satisfaction.

Analyse feedback from wine consumers, whether from formal focused groups or informal social occasions, and the fact the majority of consumers find the range of wines on offer confusing, if not bewildering, will come through loud and clear.

What the trade should do with this knowledge, however, is far from obvious. The simple answer, were a retailer to take this feedback at face value, would be to supply the consumer with 50 or so wines, including the 20 best-selling brands or generics.

But, in the past, that kind of response has just gone to prove that the issue is more complicated than it first appears. That's because for a retailer's wine range to be credible, a certain level of complexity -or in consumer terms "confusion" -appears to be imperative. It's what I call the retail paradox.

I have always thought that this would change as wine became a more everyday purchase, the big brands increased their share, and women bought more wine.

But there's no evidence to suggest that is happening. To the average consumer, wine remains a treat, a minor luxury, and the very complexity that consumers refer to is a be key element of wine's inherent value.

Which is good news. One of our major problems as a trade at the moment is the competitive pressure to cut margins across the supply chain. Imagine how bad things would be if wine were to lose its aspirational tag.

That doesn't mean we can be complacent. Rather we need to become much more sophisticated so we can eradicate elements of complexity which add no value, and also improve our understanding of how to educate significant numbers of consumers to become captivated, rather than bewildered, by wine.

And, once we have this increased understanding, the responsibility would be with us, the trade, as the "educators". As Andrew Jefford once said: "If people are not getting into chess, you don't give up and start teaching them draughts. You question how you are teaching chess."

Never has that comment been more relevant, in my view.

Michael Paul is managing director of Orbital Wines. This is his last regular column for Harpers.