Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The (next stage in the) future of book publishing

Books are appealingly tangible but annoyingly bulky. Kindles are convenient, but not much fun to use... Korean students have, however, come up with something that goes a long way to combining the qualities of both. It's still a prototype, but the video below offers a taste of what it may offer..

Friday, August 24, 2012

Independents - the clue is in the name...

The news that Britain's independent merchants have not rushed to join a "Specialist Drinks Retailers" buying group has apparently come as a disappointment to Anthony Borges, the retailer who has been trying to establish it for around a decade.

Other members of the UK wine trade may be similarly disappointed over the next years or so to discover that these same independents are not going to solve quite as many of their problems as they seem to suppose. Stated simply, they are not going to be the US Cavalry riding to the rescue of a fort besieged by discount-obsessed supermarkets.

The problem is firstly that they are really not that numerous. According to most estimates, there are around 700. This number needs to be set against the mass of Wine Racks, Threshers, Oddbins, Bottoms Ups, Gough Bros, Fullers, Unwins and Davisons that have all disappeared. By my estimate, a maximum of some 400 new players are expected to replace the 4000 or so that have disappeared.

Secondly, there's their firepower. The average turnover for these retailers is around £500,000 which will come from the sale of 200-400 different wines, plus a few spirits and beers. You don't need to be a mathematical genius to work out that a store that is one of the many turning over £300,000 - £1000 or so per day - is not going to get through large numbers of £15-30 bottles of wine. And, as my previous post illustrates, these are the kinds of retail prices required by any producer wanting to sell wine at anything over €6 or $8. The recent Off Licence News Wine Report UK wine trade poll reveals that 62.5% of the suppliers see "small minimum delivery drops" being a barrier to trading with independents. A larger number, 68% see this sector as a "small" part or "less than half" of their business.

But lastly, there's that word "independent". Most of these retailers see their role as offering wines that not only differ from the ones on the big chains' shelves, but also from their independent neighbours. This may be good news for dynamic distributors like Bibendum, Liberty and Enotria which have extensive ranges, but of little help to premium producers hoping to sell substantial amounts of their wine here. The independents collectively swallow plenty of pallets but not many containers. They'll try to buy widely and - in some cases - do a little of their own shipping, but their limited resources will restrict their ambitions. Many, like their on-trade counterparts, will happily rely on a couple of handfuls of suppliers. Or fewer.

The rumours, as I write this, are that two more well-known UK importers are about to close their doors - or be swallowed by stronger competitors. This is a trend that I cannot see going into reverse anytime soon.

My instincts are that, despite my own - and others' - respect and affection for Britain's plucky independent wine retailers, when we look back on this decade, a far greater role in any revival of the premium wine sector will probably have been played by supermarket on-line efforts, and by online specialists like Laithwaites and Slurp.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A rose by any other name


Ernest Gallo, it is said, refused ever to countenance purchasing a brand from another company. While he was still alive, Gallo famously invested many millions in raising the image of the family wine company, to the extent of physically remodelling the Sonoma vineyard in which it would produce a limited edition Gallo Reserve wine.

A few years later, Gallo changed tack and bought several high profile wineries including Louis Martini, William Hill and Barefoot... now one of the fastest growing brands in the world.

Sometimes, it seems, there are limits to what one can achieve under one's own name.

Which leads me to the story of Tesco's move (as a minority shareholder) into the coffee shop market in the shape of a new chain called Harris+Hoole. The first outlet has already opened in Amersham and there are plans to launch 10-15 more. It will presumably not be long before packs of Harris+Hoole arabica appear on Tesco's shelves.

Both pictures - of the first outlet in Amersham - are from a good piece in Retail Week

Expanding beyond its traditional brand name is part of a new trend for the chain which controls some 30% of the UK grocery market. It quietly moved into garden centres with the 2008 acquisition of Dobbies, and in 2011 it bought  a video streaming business called Blinkbox and  this year a music streaming counterpart called We7In the US, Tesco's less than thriving grocery business is called Fresh & Easy.

So, who'll bet against Tesco following a similar course in the wine world and running a more premium brand alongside its current off- and online wine offerings? The chain once reportedly came quite close to acquiring Oddbins in its glory days, though I'm not sure if anyone who was in Cheshunt in those days is still there now...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Lifting the stone on the UK wine trade

Context is everything. According to Wine & Spirit Association (WSTA) and Nielsen statistics, UK at-home consumption of wine retailing at over £10 has risen by nearly a third.

This is great news, obviously, but before too many people crack open celebratory bottles of Prosecco, it's worth considering a subsequent paragraph on the same (Chris Mercer) Observer news piece:

Unless my maths are wrong, this means that these wines now represent 0.7% of the market. Even so, they still add up to around a million 12-bottle cases, which is a reasonably substantial amount of wine. 

Update: the WSTA has just told me that by their estimation, off-trade sales at over £10 amount to 1.2% by volume of the UK market (rather higher than my 0.7% but still small) and 3.2% by value. This would add up to around 1.66m 12-bottle cases. Around a seventh of the annual production of Yellowtail - for the sake of context.

If you want to sell a bottle of wine in the UK to retail at over £10, the blue slice of the cake is the bit you are looking to share with all those other producers with similar ambitions.

£10 ($15.78 / €12.66) may sound like quite a lot of money, but for anyone outside the UK - and a fair few within this country, it might be enlightening to know roughly how much of that price actually goes to the producer.

Well, firstly, as the excellent UK Wine Tax Calculator app reveals, the £10 bottle carries a tax burden of 35.7% (made up of duty at £1.90 and VAT sales tax of 20%). But it obviously also has to include a set of other costs. Shipping will amount to around £0.13 per bottle (this could be as low as £0.08 or less for UK-bottled wine in lightweight bottles, but these don't sell for £10). The distributor might take 15-25% (again, savings could be made here, but not on relatively slowly-moving £10 wine) and the retailer will pocket between 30% (for a supermarket) to 40% for the independent store most likely to be selling this kind of wine.

Put all these figures together and you find that the £10 bottle on sale in a nice independent UK wine shop probably left a European winery at around £2.40-2.50 (€3.50-$4). A UK supermarket in an unusually generous mood might pay a little more but this would be unusual and the higher price might well be offset by a request for marketing funds.

Given these diverse margins on which supermarkets, independents, importers and agents all work - and the fact that their demands may vary according to the sales volume and sales price of each wine - it is impossible to offer a precise set of formulae, but these two charts should help. They can of course be amended with an excel spreadsheet to accommodate different margins, costs and exchange rates. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time they have been published online.

Note that the supermarkets and distributors may take a lower margin on lower-priced wine (as above). Also note rising transport costs based on the heavier bottles and cartons used for pricier bottles.

Note that the independent retailers take a higher margin than supermarkets and that distributors may also be more demanding on slow-moving, higher-priced wines.  In the UK, non-European wines are subject to a Common Customs Tariff which does not apply to wines from the EU.

If you were to extend the chart downwards to take into account the cost of the bottle, closure, carton, basic production costs and a profit for the producer, it might be fair to say that when a UK consumer doubles her retail expenditure from £5-£10, the value of the liquid in the bottle may actually rise by 8-10 times.

This has, however, to be taken in the context of the basic lack of profitability of much of the cheaper end of the wine industry. As I say, context is essential.

Update: I've just discovered that Juel Mahoney (@winewomansong) approached the same issue in Bibendum Blog with even more brutal figures (suggesting that by doubling a retail spend for £5-£10, the wine value rises by 25 times)

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Summer Nightmare

Last night I had a horrible dream - or to be more precise, a nightmare. I was in a rented house in the middle of nowhere, and had just returned from a long trek with ravenous hunger pains and keen anticipation of the meal I was going to prepare with the food with which I had filled the cupboards and fridge.

When I tried to open the fridge, however, the door wouldn't budge. And it was just as impossible to open any of the cupboards. Since leaving the house, all of them had mysteriously grown keyholes. I looked around for a key but couldn't find one anywhere, so I phoned the owner of the house who was completely unsympathetic. "Didn't you bring a kitchenkey with you? I thought everyone carries one of those."

I awoke feeling hungry and frustrated and suddenly remembered where the seeds of the dream must have been sown. Yesterday evening, after a day when the temperature hit 37 degrees, we all felt like a glass of cold rose, but this being south-west France, every one of the bottles in the fridge was sealed with some kind of real or artificial cork. And, of course, gremlins had hidden all three corkscrews that should have been in the drawer. After a long, increasingly thirsty and frustrating search, we found one...

So, here's my question: why would anyone lock a fridge? Or make people use a tool to get at a glass of refreshing, well-chilled wine?


After a note from Fabio (below) I have added the following pair of video clips which may be of use to anyone in the position I was in.


Thursday, August 09, 2012

The perils of underestimating China

Flickr image by rebecca anne

Here's my serious suggestion. Any wine professional who says "the Chinese all add Coke (or Sprite or whatever) to their wine" should be forced to spend a week in China at their own expense. And then to write a 10,000 word essay on what they see.

First, it's fundamentally not true. I'm sure it happened on occasion a few years ago and the wine in question was almost certainly a Petrus or equivalent which helped to give the story its shock value - rather like anecdotes Chinese probably share of ignorant westerners stashing their umbrellas in priceless Ming vases. There almost certainly are Chinese customers in karaoke bars who do still choose to cut their red with a bit of pop, and some who do so in the privacy of their homes. But no one has recently reported seeing any such behaviour in a restaurant in any major city. The Chinese take "face" and the risk of losing it very seriously, and they know that adulterating claret is not considered to be appropriate behaviour; drinking wine neat is a habit they are rapidly acquiring.

These stories make it much too easy to underestimate the clever approach the Chinese are currently taking to wine. China is just about the only nation on earth with an unashamedly pro-wine government. While the France administration continually devises new, health-related ways to harrass its vignerons, and an emerging wine-drinking nation like Russia imposes a ban on alcohol advertisements, the Chinese authorities are actively encouraging wine production and consumption. Apparently, the policy dates back to Deng Xiao Ping's concern that once his people had a little spare cash, they'd spend it on alcohol produced from rice or grain that might otherwise have been used for food; grapes are not a staple. India has a lot of very hungry people and is currently the world's biggest whisky market, consuming some 140m cases per year; maybe its rulers could learn a few lessons from their counterparts in Beijing.

Chinese wine consumption has been growing steadily by 7%, faster than any other market, to reach 1.6bn bottles in 2011: over a bottle per head. Domestic production has also grown; next year, China's wine grape harvest will probably overtake Australia's and within two years China may make enough wine to satisfy domestic demand. The decision to use tax-removal to turn Hong Kong into the fine wine hub of the world was also apparently very much a made-in-Beijing initiative.

But there are more interesting things happening on the margins that suggest that the Chinese wine industry is actually smarter than some of the countries that treat it with disdain.  there is a tradition of using wine as a gift so, quite logically, producers stick their bottles in attractive cartons. In the west (where wine is also often used in this way), we pack spirits, Champagnes and port in this way, but very rarely think of doing so for $50 bottles of red or white. New World regions like Napa have long understood the potential value of wine tourism, but Bordeaux is only beginning to exploit it. Neither Old nor New Worlds, however, have anything to compete with the "International City of Wine" that Changyu, China's oldest winery, is aiming to open in 2016. It will apparently cost nearly a billion dollars, be twice the size of Monaco and be blessed with an array of hotels and a "200,000 square metre wine-themed tourist town".

Wine gift pack and Chateau Changyu, the existing tourist attraction

Sheer extravagance? Maybe, but if it succeeds in its aim of attracting over a million visitors per year, that extravagance could prove to have been as good business for Changyu as the "extravagant" Frank Gehry hotel has been for Riscal. Profitability certainly ranks highly on the list of Chinese priorities. When the Japanese first got the wine bug, they splashed out on jewels such as Chateau St Jean in California, (for $40m way back in 1984), Chateau Lagrange in Bordeaux and Robert Weil in Germany. The Chinese have been more moderate in their shopping, rarely spending more than the cost of a smart apartment in Shanghai. As an estate agent in St Emilion confirmed to me, anything they buy has to be turning a profit, and future prospects are usually bolstered by ready-made distribution networks in China. But don't imagine that the Chinese are being remotely insular in their thinking. The recent purchase of Diva Bordeaux, one of the region's canniest negociants and part of the equally canny global Diva network reveals how ready Chinese investors are to dip their spoon deeply into the international wine industry broth.

Most recently, as Meininger's Wine Business International correspondent Jim Boyce tells me, Ningxia Province in the north west of China has invited ten international winemakers to make wines from its grapes this year, with the producer of the best red and white, standing to win 26,000 euros. Not a bad way to amass a load of cheap, potentially invaluable consultancy. I could go on, but I'm not sure my friends in China want me to spread the word about ventures like this; they'd probably rather I joined in the Lafite-and-Lemonade chorus and gave them time to go on quietly and patiently honing their plans for global vinous domination.

Which shade of grey do you want? Or is less more?


I recently spent several days helping to choose the UK IWC Wine Merchants of the Year, a process that, I can confirm, was scrupulously run and involved a set of very impressive judges (myself excluded obviously). Among the criteria we considered was the quality and breadth of range offered by each of the companies. None, I can reveal, proposed just 40 reds, whites, pinks and fizzes as 10 Green Bottles does to its customers. Nor can I say what the other judges would have made of such a limited range, but I think it would be fair to say that proposing fewer than a dozen wines of any colour is probably not calculated to win you many prizes.

It certainly wouldn't have curried much favour with the people who have just come up with the Wine Spectator list of best restaurant wine lists. Two thousand seems to be the kind of number of different bottles they are looking for.

Berry Bros offer 76 different examples of Chablis. 10 Green Bottles offers just 10 whites

But what if 10 - or maybe 100 - Green Bottles were right? What if offering an all-embracing, comprehensive selection of wines from every corner of the planet is not actually the best thing to do?

In 2000 Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a now-famous paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that described three pieces of research showing that consumers buy more if they are presented with a smaller number of items to choose from. When customers in a US grocery store were offered six different Tiptree jams, 40% stopped to taste, of whom 30% went on to make a purchase. Compare this sales figure with what happened when the range of jams was expanded to 24. Now 60% of the customers were tempted to sample - 50% more - but only 3% actually bought anything.

So, if you extrapolated this to 1,000 people, offering a wide choice would yield sales of just 18 jars of jam, compared to the 120 you'd sell from the smaller selection. There have, admittedly, been a few retorts to the Iyengar/Lepper thesis, but it has stood the test of time pretty well and a trawl through the internet throws up large numbers of anecdotal support for it from shop assistants with no academic qualifications, or axes to grind. Among the academics who agree that a wide choice may be counter-productive is Mike Veseth, the brilliant self-styled wine economist. In 2010, In a 2010 blog post called "the Paradox of Wine Choice", Veseth says "greater choice first delights us, then overwhelms us, then it can sometimes drive us crazy. There must be a 'best' among all the rest. Which is it? And how will I know? The quest for the best can sometimes destroy the pleasure of the very good by introducing an unwanted but unshakeable sense of doubt". He goes on to say that this is the "Age of Anxiety for wine" and that "some of the hottest products in the wine market [such as Barefoot] seem to simplify wine just a bit and perhaps unitentionally address this anxiety".
The title of Veseth's post refers to a book called Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwarz, in which the author describes as "maximizers", people who "seek and accept only the best". These perfectionists are contrasted with "satisficers" (an ugly term, I agree) who "settle for something that is good enough without worrying about the possibility that there might be something better". Schwarz and Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness convincingly suggest that satisficers are actually often happier with their lives than maximizers.

Which brings us back to the ideal number of wines for any retailer to offer. UK chains have put between 500-1500 wines on their shelves in recent years, and often been rewarded by having to dispose of large numbers of unsold bottles. The Long Tail may apply to music downloads or books which can be stored in warehouses until someone wants to buy them, but it does not apply to those cases of 2010 pink or white wine that failed to find homes.

Costco, which sells over $1bn of wine every year has a vast list of wines on its "approved" list, but stores are allowed to choose what they want to stock, based on available space and consumer demand. Between a hundred and two hundred wines often seems to be a workable number. That's admittedly broader than 10 Green Bottles' 40-strong list, but in some cases only three or four times as broad.
Curiously, my friends who applaud extensive wine ranges rarely seem to complain about the growing trend among restaurants to restrict choice. The headline of a recent piece by Richard Godwin   in the London Standard, says it all: "Short orders... why the hottest restaurants don't have choice on the menu." Maybe 10 Green Bottles has something to teach the rest of us.

Paris menu image from Phyllis Flick on Flickr

Why the Australians are cleverer than us...

Just imagine for a moment, that the year is 1965 and you have been asked to come up with a name for a recently-developed, revolutionary kind of packaging for wine. The format itself has all sorts of qualities, including convenience (of transportation, storage and usage) and potentially simple recyclability. All you have to do is devise a name that might appeal to the people who are going to buy it instead of the glass bottles they are used to.

If you're an Australian wine producer called Thomas Angove, the term you have chosen is "cask", a pretty good name that, after all, is calculated to put consumers in mind of the traditional way to store large quantities of wine. Your decision, coupled with a bit of work the following year from a team at Penfolds who introduced the tap, contributed to the phenomenal success of the format in both Australia and New Zealand. Over the following four decades, Australians grew used to getting around half their wine out of a tap rather than a bottle. This, in turn, in my opinion, helped to foster a genuinely aspirational attitude towards bottled wine which, after all, represented the more premium segment of the Australian market.

The quality of the wine in Aussie boxes and the attractive small, 2 litre - sizes
also helped to build the market. The comment on the right comes from Vapiano, a wine bar in Queensland.

If, on the other hand, you were British, you thought rather differently. You forgot about the consumer and focused on describing the product with almost Germanic precision. I'm not sure whether the first name you came up with was "metallised-film-bag-with-a-tap-inside-a-corrugated-fiberboard-box", but the one you ended up with was the only marginally prettier "bag-in-box". I suppose it's a minor miracle that you didn't call it a "bladder".
But just consider those three words - bag... in... box... for a moment: they'd be absolutely fine as a description for a container intended for battery acid (the use for which the format was originally conceived), but who ever imagined that it would have any kind of positive resonance with wine drinkers? Can you really imagine l'Oreal asking its customers to buy a "bag-in-box" of its hair dyes? Or any other company associated with quality consumer goods?

The bag-in-box has never really taken off in the UK, maintaining a steady 10% or so of the market, while bottom-of-the-tank wine is still sold here as three-glass-bottles-for-£10. While the bag-in-box has recently done well in Sweden (thanks in part to the efforts of the Monopoly) and has gained a little traction in the US and in France (where it is known as "Bib"), it remains a poor relation of the wine packaging world.

At a time when, for reasons of cost and environmental consciousness, we are increasingly looking for innovative alternative forms of packaging, ranging from Tetra to pouches, cans and PET, it might be worth remembering the cask-v-bag-in-box story and considering whether it might not be worth giving these new formats more appealing names. Wine drinkers are a relatively conservative bunch, as can be seen from the enduring popularity of corks in most markets and the traditional style of the majority of labels. If you want to change consumers' behaviour, it's probably worth taking the effort to put yourself in their shoes.