Why are UK retailers so afraid of innovation?
In the past year Stranger & Stranger alone has trialled three shiny new ideas in the US wine market.
California Square, a wine in a space- and energy-saving square bottle, was designed to hit a price point of around $14. It looks so cool that the retailer decided to put it on at $20. They didn’t try to squeeze blood out of the winery on a three-for-10 deal. Instead, they made huge displays in store and got all enthusiastic. Honestly, it’s infectious.
Paperboy, a wine in a bottle made out of recycled compressed card that saves 85% of the energy of producing and shipping glass bottles, was immediately signed up by Safeway, with WholeFoods and the rest of the supermarket chains waiting on stock after Safeway’s 30-day exclusive period expires.
Someone sent me pictures of Paperboy displays which featured bicycles! Other retailers emailed me asking how to get hold of the bottles. I got chased by the monopolies in Scandinavia and I had to tell them that we don’t ship the things. We’re a design firm; ask the winery.
This is all particularly interesting because not one UK retailer even wanted to trial the product. Not one. On a corporate level they wax lyrical about social conscience, but will not even trial, let alone positively get behind, a technology – a UK technology, at that - that could radically effect one of the most wasteful and energy-hungry sectors in all of retail.
I may have, in the distant past, been a tad critical of the reign of homogeny in the UK wine market. I may have complained to a few friends, the media, anyone who would listen. UK wine will eat itself, I think I said. A promotion mentality only goes downhill, I think I said. I tried to get retailers interested in adding value through innovation. I ran competitions, pleaded with buyers, shouted at the TV.
I even offered to brand-up innovative ideas for free and – given my Northern thriftiness – you have no idea how much that hurt to say out loud.
I tried, I really tried.
When I started concentrating on the US, I asked a winery owner to set up a few meetings with retailers to see if we could get some reception for new ideas. You know what I heard? “We’ll try it. We’ll give it a go. It’s different. It stands out. What do you think we can get for it on shelf?”
On the other hand, a UK distributor told me the other day, while crying into their beer, about the take it or leave it ‘stretch’ clause in the large supermarkets’ contracts under which they can demand a random and huge lump sum if they think the distributor is making too much profit. Profit that could have been used to, I don’t know, make something new.
I hear UK retailers laying responsibility at the feet of brand owners all the time, but I rarely see them do anything to support new ideas and add value – anything to just try and get this business to evolve past the word “Cheaper!”.
Next year Stranger will be 20 years old – back when we started, vodka only came in vodka flavour – and the price of wine has changed little in all the time I’ve been creating labels. Unfortunately, in the UK wine trade, neither has much else.
I still believe this industry can do better: we can learn from the spirits industry, we can learn from the US. They both know a little something about marketing.
Kevin Shaw is the owner of drinks-based design agency, Stranger & Stranger.