UK retailers get all too familiar
There is a feeling of weary inevitability when every year's International Wine Challenge results are announced. Daniel Thibault will be sparkling winemaker of the year and Oddbins will be wine merchant of the year. Thibault has won the title the for the past four years, Oddbins has reigned supreme since 1994. Now before you think this I'm being churlish about the chain's deserved success don't you think this dominance is a little, well, worrying? Is Oddbins really so far ahead of the game that no other UK wine merchant can rival it?
Two questions arise from Oddbins' apparent hegemony over the sector. Cynics could (and do) suggest that, yet again, giving the chain the award only illustrates either how inherently lazy the judging panel is. Or if that isn't the case - and Oddbins is genuinely as far ahead as the awards suggest - then what state is the UK's drinks retail category in?
A depressing wander around a collection of local off-licences (independent, multiple, specialist and supermarket) gave me the answer to that second question. Moribund is the only word. There is precious little innovation, virtually no trained staff and the choice being offered to the consumer - rather than reflecting the increasing number of quality wines from across the world - is heavily reliant on multiple facings of big brands and homogeneous flavours. Was it just me? I sounded out some colleagues in the trade. Is drinks retailing moribund? I asked them. "There's certainly inertia," said one. "Wine buying on the high street is particularly unexciting experience," said another.
The worst offender is First Quench, on paper a genuine specialist with sufficient financial muscle to compete with the supermarkets, but which seems more keen to replicate the worst excesses of the big brand ethos that dominates the thinking of most multiple grocers.
Wine Cellar, on paper an innovative departure from the norm, talked the talk and nailed the look but then forgot to buy a decent range of wine. Unwins still fails to live up to its potential.
To be fair, there are exceptions. Majestic is underrated (certainly by the IWC judging panel). In supermarkets, Waitrose and its northern equivalent Booth's have excellent ranges, while Sainsburys' experiment with re-sitting wine departments and introducing fine wine sections were praised by most commentators. The company's recent mail-order/on-line project - a joint venture with, you guessed it, Oddbins - was also singled out for praise.
But these little high points are few and far between. The overall picture is a depressing one.
"In retailing, popular wisdom dictates that you have to have big brands to drive business."
Why has this happened? "It's thanks to this obsession with category management," said one insider. "In retailing, popular wisdom dictates that you have to have big brands to drive business." No surprise then that virtually every retail outlet is offering the same wines. Big brand retailers need big brands - and big brand owners. Guinness/UDV, Allied-Domecq, Kendall-Jackson, E&J Gallo, Southcorp, not only want to create a global wine brand, but need to be able to offer a complete, branded drinks package.
As they establish closer ties with the giant retailers so consumer choice is eradicated and, ultimately, wine-buying itself is outsourced. When a giant company can offer a complete package then the retailer can eliminate the need for a buyer and get on with selling. Why do you need one when the supplier can deliver all your needs? Why bother with tasting the offerings of 20 agents offering different Australian wines when Southcorp can supply you with 20 wines covering every price point?
Do you even need a huge range? Isn't it easier to give the consumer multiple facings of the big brands they love?
Consolidation in the wine industry tramples diversity into the dust of the vineyard, while supermarkets (and alleged specialists) end up replicating each other's ranges, their main point of difference being price or the strength of their carrier bags.
In this age of the global brand, diversity is the enemy not the goal. Paranoid fantasy? One look at the shelves tells you it's already happening. It's happened with clothes, food, videos, music, books, why not wine?
In a brave move, Morrisons - that proud upholder of low-priced, no-nonsense value for money - is buying wine by taste and not brand. A supermarket chain that delists Gallo? It will be interesting to see how long they can hold this stance and whether any other retailers are courageous enough to follow suit. I'm not holding my breath.
In these days of mega-marts and mega-brands the approach taken by Oddbins [and Majestic, Waitrose and Booth's] seems perverse. (Incidentally, isn't it strange that Oddbins is always called Œquirky' when all it's ever done is behave like a true specialist?) Not only that, as the big get ever bigger this individuality is under increasing threat. The Oddbins head office may be rejoicing over another triumph but any consumer interested in wine should view it with alarm.
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