As uniquely wonderful as wine is to drink and share, it is equally vexing and challenging to evolve new ways of selling it in our changed world marketplace.
It’s neither supply nor demand, nor the snarl of legal and shipping restrictions, nor the innate light margin structure that keeps the model offline and unevolved.
It’s the nature of wine itself.
At its core, wine needs to be sold, not bought. It’s this wacky reality that is its wonder, its anomalous dna and, I think, the key to how it will change dramatically over the next few years. Embracing its uniqueness is the solution.
Some products get bought. Shower curtains. Chocolates. Refrigerators. Gift baskets, packaged cheese, roses, office supplies and Q Tips.
Catalogs (and big box stores) are perfect for this. A picture tells the story. No conversation is needed, no scale of value required. You can shop by price, shop by convenience, shop by brand or functionality.
You just buy these things.
It’s not just commodities. It includes books and movies, high-end linens, furniture, even in some cases automobiles and art. The universe of knowable information is easily shared at a glance, in a list, in a referral or wrapped in a brand.
Amazon, Etsy, eBay and big brand online catalogs inherit this space.
Wine just doesn’t work there. These platforms list not sell. They are not wired to make a market.
Unassisted wine sales on the supermarket shelf or the online catalog are an exercise in frustration. Labels never tell the story. Mobile buying aids are invariably quirky more than useful. To the newbie and wine geek alike, browsing with intelligent intent is usually a non-starter.
As an aside, what Parker and numerical scales accomplished, as much as I find them false and disdainful, with a kind of (evil) brilliance was to commoditize wine so that it could be bought without assistance, without knowledge, without story.
It made wine ‘buyable’, something that could be purchased against an abstract scale applied to a product that eluded objectivity. It established market value (higher is better) that could be bought against. No longer did you have an indecipherable list of wines, you had Garanimals for wine, a numerical value scale with bad on one side, great on the other. A cartoon marketplace.
Once you create objective value, you establish criteria for discount as legitimate currency. Amazing, albeit a hypothetical and bogus economy.
The Achilles Heel of Lot 18 and the host of GroupOn wannabees that are selling wine like haircuts or harbor cruises are connected, I believe, to this dependence on numerical scales, corresponding discounts and this manufactured value scale. It’s a bubble that has burst.
This won’t work for wine. It’s antithetical to its nature.
Wine needs to be handheld and sold bottle by bottle. Its uniqueness and the taste of the consumer needs to be celebrated not mollified.
This happens every time we order a glass or bottle at a bar or restaurant.
It happens every time we shop at retail, feeling the weight of a bottle in hand, talking to someone passionate about the story behind the why and the how of that wine. The story of why this 20 or so dollar bottle is the right choice to pair with whatever the food or occasion might be.
This happens at tastings of course. Wine dinners. Wine bars.
This happens around offline visits to wineries and the follow on: online clubs and direct to consumer sales. And wine clubs, mostly the domain of big brands like Wall Street Journal or New York Times, bridge on this idea of a trust handshake, giving them the right to pre-sell you what they recommend over time.
I see a very different world coming. Evolving right in front of us.
A word where the community and social commerce possibilities of the web, the unique gestalt of wine and a broader (and flattened) national, possibly international market all comes together.
A great example is Kickstarter, which doesn’t sell wine, but sells dreams, one at a time, one to one on the web. If you can find a way to sell the dreams and the visions of the entrepreneur online, with absolutely no payback to the investor except good will, you can find a way to sell wine.
I believe that both the model for selling wine and the runway on the social web is right in front of us. We already know how to sell wine. Shops do this every day with perfection.
We already know that the catalog or priced-based model won’t work except for the tiniest piece of the market. We already know that new customer acquisition works best with an off/online paradigm. And we know that the social web is part of market’s backbone, dynamic and rapt with commercial behaviors that are ready as building blocks.
I’m personally vested in figuring out the extended on/offline web model through my wine community, theLocalSip in New York.
We are a young marketplace with 35 of New York’s best wine shops, with a collective vision of the future that ties the expertise of shops, the connection to their neighborhoods, their belief in tastings as extended events to sell wine, and a community online across the city and across the country. In less than 5 months we have hosted hundreds of tastings, built our own loyalty currency, poured over a thousand different wines to thousands of New Yorkers in 20 neighborhoods across the city.
We’ve figured out part of this model already. There is more being built and rolled out as I write now to extend the paradigm, bring in the broader national market, the bloggers, the enthusiasts, and surfacing something new that connects it all together.
This post is not about theLocalSip wine community though.
It’s about the web’s possibilities, the unique characteristic of wine to be sold, not bought, and a change in how we do business in today’s marketplace with new consumer behaviors.
It’s a belief that you don’t change wine and its characteristic appreciation as Parker did to fit an outdated commercial model. You do just the opposite.
You take the evolved pieces of the web, the marketplace and peoples need to connect wine to how it’s purchased to forge a new way that builds on what works, not rejects it.
I’m truly inspired by this future. Enthused about connecting the framework of communities and the dynamics of web connected individuals with hubs of shops around the country. Maybe the world.
Scores of start-ups are being formed, chasing this opportunity in every conceivable way. A very few will work. The consumer and wine and the new artisanal wine movement especially will win.
I’m interested in ideas that speak to ways that this can happen. Smart thinking that doesn’t take the easy route nor the belief that just because it hasn’t been done, it can’t work.
Do share your ideas.
We have wine and the web in common. It’s ours to define and build. Wine and the amazing connection between people and culture through taste it engenders, makes it worthwhile. At the very least, its a great conversation to have.