Thursday, May 28, 2015
The "overwhelmed wine consumer" is mostly a myth
Turns out, like many assumptions -- especially ones this condescending -- it's pretty much bullshit.
Last month the American Association of Wine Economists published a 2014 working paper entitled "Drowning in the Wine Lake: Does Choice Overload Exist in Wine Retail?" The 41-page paper didn't get the attention it deserved because at first glance, its findings aren't revelatory.
But when you think about it, they are.
The survey was done by Douglas Zucker, director of operations at Stew Leonard's Wines in New York. He did the study in New York, and you can see where big wine companies would say that it's not Indiana and Wisconsin supermarket shoppers.
That said, there are more wine choices in New York wine stores than almost anywhere on the planet. If customers are going to experience choice overload, it's a likely place.
What's "choice overload?" It has been described in academic works for 40 years, Zucker reports.
He writes, "Consumers feel less satisfied when forced to choose from among too many options; or even postpone deciding entirely. A large body of research has confirmed this effect exists across a wide range of goods and categories."
But in wine, Zucker couldn't find much evidence of it.
From his conclusion: "In the survey, 70% of respondents reported “completely disagree” with the statement that having too many choices makes it more difficult to choose a wine. Similarly only 3% wished for fewer actual selections than what the stores already carry (which ranged from 1100 to 1900 depending on location). These findings were replicated in the interviews, where people reported being extremely satisfied with their wine purchase, irrespective of number of bottles purchased, time spent in store, wine knowledge level or any other factor. Therefore in this study the choice overload effect did not exist."
Zucker makes some other interesting findings: consumers like Pinot Grigio and California Cabernet because they know what to expect. Pinot Grigio was the only wine where people wanted fewer options, probably because they are all expected to taste the same anyway.
The main point, though, is that wine shop customers are perfectly happy to browse through more than 1000 selections. And why not?
Constellation Brands did an interesting study in 2008 in which it claimed 23% of all wine consumers are "overwhelmed." They showed classic symptoms of choice overload: overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices, and "if information is confusing, they won't buy anything at all."
How to reconcile these studies? For one thing, seven years is a long time; the U.S. wine market gets more sophisticated every year.
Then there's the group surveyed. The Constellation study surveyed 10,000 people who had bought at least one wine priced $5 or higher -- that's how they defined a "premium wine consumer" -- in the previous 18 months. You can argue that Zucker's group is targeted too narrowly at wine shop customers. However, Constellation's group is targeted broadly at people who might be convinced to buy Three Blind Moose Cabernet. Nothing wrong with that, but the great majority of the wine industry doesn't, and shouldn't, care about people who buy the occasional $6 bottle of wine. If you want good wine, step one is simply to spend more than that.
I just don't believe that in 2015, even 5% of wine consumers are "overwhelmed."* There are plenty of relatively new wine drinkers who could use more information, and there always will be. But Zucker's overall conclusion is that people enjoy buying wine.
* Though whatever percentage there is tends to be overrepresented at websites like iO9 and Vox.
People don't need cheezy labels that say "this wine goes with chicken." They don't need plastic "flavor strips." The most important way to bring in new consumers is to make good wine at a good price, and have a good website to answer questions people who bought it might have. People will find it.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM