Bottoms Up: Extreme Value Wine Demand

“Life is too short to drink cheap wine,” but either life is getting longer or the definition of cheap is changing, because cheap wine (or extreme value wine, as I called it in my last blog post) is a booming market category.

The US off-premises wine market grew by 3.7 percent dollar value in the last year, according to Nielsen Scantrak results reported in Wine Business Monthly, but sales of wine under $3 per bottle equivalent rose by more than 5 percent and sales of $3-$5 increased by 9.4 percent. This gives the old toast “bottoms up” a new meaning. The bottom of the wine wall is currently leading the way.

Bottoms Up!

Since I’m an economist I tend to approach market problems from the perspective of supply and demand. It is easy to understand where the supply of extreme value wine is coming from. The global wine surplus combined with structural falling demand in the Old World and recession-induced slow growth in the New World means that there is a lot of wine out there searching for a home. Some of it ends up being deeply discounted or dumped in stores like the Grocery Outlet chain.

A lot of it goes into own-brand wines at mainstream stores. Safeway has introduced its Quail Oak brand and 7-Eleven just announced a line of $3.99 wines called Yosemite Road.  Both wines (and many other own-brands) are made by The Wine Group, the giant privately held California winemaker that, like Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wines, seems to specialize in making wines to hit particular price points.

Demand Side Puzzle

Although it just seems wrong, let me assure you that supplying wine to sell at $5, $4, $3 or even two bucks per bottle is not that difficult once you set out to do it. Cheap surplus grapes, cheap surplus wines, low-cost winemaking processes and economies of scale all contribute to extreme value supply. Nope, supply is easy. The challenge, until recently at least, has been selling the stuff.

Studies have repeatedly shown that wine drinkers are influenced by price – but not in the way you learned in Econ 101.  A lower price does not always produce more sales because insecure buyers infer quality from price. They assume that higher price means better wine. In a blind tasting of two identical wines, buyers will often rate one above the other if they are told it costs more.

So why are many wine drinkers now stooping down and buying cheaper (sometimes very cheap) wines – and shopping at stores like Grocery Outlet — when in the past they have been programmed to consider these products inferior? I think there are three forces at work.

Two Buck Chuck Effect

The first factor is what you might call the Two Buck Chuck effect. Trader Joe’s stores have led the way in introducing American wine drinkers to inexpensive own-brand wines. Because shopping at Trader Joe’s is cool, trying Trader Joe’s discount wines is cool, too (or at least not as un-cool as buying Carlo Rossi at Kroger would be).

You might ask “How good can a $3 wine  be?” elsewhere, but at Trade Joe’s it’s “How bad can it be?” TJ’s lends its reputation to the wine, which is the key to all own-brands. It is clear that Safeway, 7-Eleven, Target, Wal-Mart and many other chains that have introduced own-brand wines believe that they can do the same.

Costco Effect

Costco, the big box store chain, is the largest retailer of wine in the United States. Although their selection of wines is surprisingly limited (fewer than 150 different wines in each store compared with 1000-2000 or more at a typical upscale supermarket), it draws people in with low prices, made possible in part by the fact that buyers pay annual membership fees for the right to shop. The maximum markup on Costco wines is 15 percent above wholesale, which is hard to beat if you want to buy what they want to sell.

Costco has trained its upscale clientele to look for low price, but that’s not the Costco Effect I’m talking about here. Costco doesn’t sell extreme value wines – it leaves the bottom-feeding market to others.

The Costco Effect refers to the fact that shopping for wine at Costco is a lot like a treasure hunt. The wine selection changes all the time and so you need to come back often. Costco makes a point of stocking limited production wines, which run out. So if you see something you like, you better buy it now. I have friends who have scored one or two spectacularly good buys on impossible to find iconic wines at Costco and who are now completely addicted – they stop by as often as they can just to see what might be in the bin today.

Costco’s success with its treasure hunt strategy has generated a group of upscale customers (including perhaps my friend Jerry who was featured in the last blog post) who find the hunt almost as pleasant as the wine they buy. It’s a big a step but not an impossible one to go from Costco to Grocery Outlet since both position themselves as happy hunting grounds.

Trading Down Effect

The final piece of the demand puzzle is the recession, which made most of us stop and think about what we are paying and what we are getting. The data indicate that trading down (lower price), trading over (adopting a more casual and lower cost wine lifestyle) and drinking up (drinking from the cellar rather than buying expensive wines) are significant effects. Paying less for wine doesn’t carry the social stigma it might have in the boom-boom days and it doesn’t dent your personal wine identity as deeply either.

When you combine these three effects you get a market where extreme value wines can enter the mainstream. The demand for these wines is increasing, with different wine buyers responding to different motivations. It will be interesting to see if the market shift is permanent or if wine buyers will go back to their old habits.

Good, Bad or Ugly?

It is easy to conclude that the extreme value trend is a bad thing for the wine industry. People are paying less for wine, buying more generic wine and less of the quality product. I don’t see this as a completely negative trend, however. At least they are buying wine and not switching to other beverages. That would be ugly. This is part of the story of the collapse of wine demand in Europe. Wine became just another beverage and faded away as a quotidian pleasure. That hasn’t happened here, at least not yet.

I am actually hopeful that the extreme value trend will ultimately benefit the wine world, although I admit that my viewpoint is backed up by anecdotes more than hard data. I spoke with a young couple at the local Grocery Outlet who seem to me to be an optimistic future of wine in America. They had parked their shopping cart (with two small kids) in the wine corner and were busy picking out three or four bottles of wine from the huge selection of inexpensive bottles.

Do you buy wine here often? Yes, every week. We try different wines, which is fun. Some of them are disappointing, but it doesn’t cost very much to try them and we can also buy something different the next time. It’s been a long time since we found something that made us want to come back and buy a case, but that’s OK – it’s still fun.

Serious Business

What I like about this couple is that they use the extreme value store as an opportunity to experiment and they have the confidence to trust their own taste rather than some wine critics ratings. If they keep this up I think they will work their way out of the bargain bin. But I hope they never lose their sense of fun and willingness to take a chance on something different.

Wine is a serious business, but it is a mistake to take it too seriously. Wine can be intimidating, that’s for sure, especially the high-stakes wine game. It might be a healthier business in the long run if more people learn to love its treasure hunt side. If mainstreaming extreme value wine helps accomplish that, I think it is a positive development.

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