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.

Readers' comments (2)

  • A critical point underpinning Kevin's observations is the UK's obsession with solely attributing value to the cost of the liquid in the bottle.

    We say it should only retail for X because the agricultural based cost this type of product is known to be Z. We don't say that it is worth more than X retail because it 'speaks' to the consumer in ways beyond the liquid, so adding enjoyment and another kind of value.

    On one side are those who say all marketing is a con trick and the retail price should be material costs plus 'reasonable' margins; on the other are those who see material costs as elements within the creation of a product that will capture the imagination of a consumer- which can combine quality and emotion.

    It's price versus value, functionality versus dreams, wine versus spirits, UK versus USA.

    Little surprise Kevin fled these shores to seek his fortune across the pond

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  • Very interesting observation. Especially at the time the Tesco top man espouses they are innovative and lead the way!! How so?

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