Which Wine? Navigating the Retail Wine Wall’s Fluid Map

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What’s the best way to organize supermarket products to facilitate consumer purchases? Over in the canned vegetable aisle, the system is pretty simple. All the canned green beans there. All the canned corn here. Easy to find what you want. Easy to compare.

Over in the breakfast cereal aisle an entirely different geography applies. The corn flakes are found here, there, and elsewhere, not all in one spot. That’s because most of the products are organized by producer. All the Post cereals here, all the Chex products over there.

Thousands of SKUs?

I have been trying to figure out what works best for wine for quite some time, but I am still a bit stumped. The wine wall, the name I have given to the space where wines are put on display, probably has the greatest number of SKUs of any single section of an upscale grocery store. You will find 1000-2000 in many stores today and the big box alcohol superstores like Total Wine and BevMo have about 5000 wine choices at any given time.

So much choice! Consumers need all the help they can get to navigate this crowded retail archipelago.

Canned Veg + United Nations

I used to think that I knew the wine wall map and I wrote about it in my 2011 book Wine WarsThe domestic wines are often arranged like the canned veg aisle — all the Zinfandel here, all the Pinot Noir there. Imports are mapped like the United Nations. France, Italy, Germany, and so on. Sometimes groups of countries get lumped together (Spain + Portugal, Chile + Argentina). I have seen the entire southern hemisphere reduced to a couple of shelves. Ouch!

There is often a sort of Siberia over in the corner for “other” wines, sweet, fortified, alcohol-free, kosher, organic, and so on. Sparkling wines from wherever are all collected together in one place, something that is often true of Rosé wines, too. Alternative packaging rates its own section with box wine and now also canned wines holding forth. You will also find smaller wine displays here and there in the store — near the cheese, meat, fish, and deli counters, for example. Wine, wine, everywhere. Organized chaos!

QWERTY and the Wine Wall

There are lots of variations on this canned veg – United Nations system, so your favorite store is probably a bit different. But does the general outline sound familiar?

This is the hybrid system I know best, but I don’t think it works very well. It is a bit like your computer keyboard. The QWERTY layout is familiar, but inefficient. It was originally designed to slow down users in order to prevent them jamming the mechanism. Now it is the industry standard.

Here’s one problem with the standard system. If you want to browse Pinot Noir wines, for example, you need to visit a number of different locations (Pinot Noir, for domestic wines, plus France, and New Zealand and maybe also Chile, Australia, and others if the store’s selection is strong). You can waste a lot of time and effort tracking down your Pinot choice.

Of course this doesn’t matter much if all you want to do in find the 1.5 liter bottle of Barefoot Moscato you buy every week. Find it once and you are set for life.

The RAM Wine Wall

You can imagine my surprise, then, when Sue and I recently visited a new store, part of a national supermarket chain that takes wine seriously, where all our experience navigating the wine wall was rendered useless. I wonder if this the result of marketing research or just an accident?

We were looking for Chilean wines, not an unreasonable thing to search for, and we never found them if they were there. Apart from a big bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon in one spot, the general organizing principle seemed to be RAM. In computer talk that means Random Access Memory and the wines seemed pretty random to me — no United Nations, not much canned veg. There was a section for Local Wines, but looking there we stumbled upon the Port. There are lots of Ports here in the Puget Sound area, but none of them are the source of Port wine.

Who would find the RAM system helpful? Not someone who knows what she wants. But maybe it was designed for the overwhelmed consumer who is content to browse for something with a clever or colorful label. I know that a lot of wine is purchased this way and that brands, including some private label brands, work hard to attract these customers. I never knew it would come to this!

Alphabet Wine

A recent visit to a local alcohol superstore (again looking for Chilean wine) revealed a system that is the opposite of random, but still pretty difficult to navigate.  The basic canned veg – United Nations approach prevails at the store we visited, but in a different way. Italy and France have their own sections, of course, and are also organized by region, which I find helpful. And other wine producing nations get their UN seats, too, but not all of them. Chile, for example, and South Africa are represented, but not all in one place.  Instead their wines are mixed in with individual grape varieties on the canned veg principle.

Chilean Carmenere was relatively easy to find — we stumbled onto it next to the Malbec section. But Chilean Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir were found in the long aisles for those varieties along with producers from around the world. The wines were organized alphabetically by brand name! Wow, I didn’t see that coming. If you know the brand and the grape variety you are golden (and, I must say, staff was happy to help us when we asked), but if you don’t know the details and you want to browse the different Chilean Pinots, you are pretty much out of luck.

(The store website can help here, giving you the current stock of your store and the location. It is not seamless, but it works.)

Like a Rolling Stone?

Canned veg, United Nations, RAM, ABCs. What’s next? The Dewey Decimal System? With so many wines to choose from and such complicated ways of organizing them, it is no surprise that many shoppers don’t buy wine or buy it only on special occasions.

And maybe it is no surprise either that some of the stores that sell the most wine are the ones that keep it simple like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Costco, which sells more wine than any other U.S. retailer, intentionally limits the number of wines available at any moment, changes stock frequently, keeps prices low, and uses a very simple system. There are more expensive wines and less expensive wines. There are red, white, pink, and sparkling wines. Go for it.

It’s the Rolling Stones system, really. You can’t always get what you want at Costco, in terms of a particular wine, but you can usually get what you need. The wine flies out the door.

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I keep track of wine walls with unusual geographical patterns. One of my favorites was at a now-defunct discount supermarket in our neighborhood. The wines were displayed according to price. Less than $3, $3 to $5, $5 to $7, and so on. Since price is such an important factor in supermarket wine purchases, and since most buyers have a specific price comfort zone, this system made some sense.

Another local store features a lot of Italian wines and since Italy is so diverse in terms of regions and grape varieties, organizing that single section presents a challenge. The current strategy, which appeals to wine geeks like me, is to mimic the map of Italy itself on the wine wall.  Piemonte is upper left, Friuli and the Veneto upper right. Tuscany has a big section near the middle. Sicily lower left. Puglia lower right. Beautiful!

Please feel free to use the Comments section to talk about your experience with the wine walls in your area.

12 responses

  1. I always believed in using the customer as a guide. How do they seek this wine? “Where is your Yellow Tail?’ Brand set. “Where are your Cabernets?” Varietal set. “Where are your ports?” Style set. Not perfect, but it is “customer first.”

  2. This is what my local Wholefoods does for its craft beer case. The stockers claim that a beer is in the case in a particular location becasue a customer has asked for it to be there. They say the customers fill the beer cases.

  3. My favorite wine store, the Boulder Wine Merchant, organizes by region. It works for me, especially since I’m a geography geek and it gives me an excuse to travel the world!

  4. Thank you for the post, Mike! It would be interesting to compare wine walls of large retailers of top wine import countries (e.g. US vs UK vs Germany) and try to distill country specifics.

  5. It’s a great idea that the customers should dictate the set-up. The hitch, of course, is that while you may be looking for a Chilean Merlot, another customer may be just looking for a good Merlot. Either way, the canned veg or the UN set-up is going to annoy someone.

    After previously working at Total Wine, I see value in their mostly Canned Veg set up with New World varietals listed alphabetically and situated on the shelf (Top to Bottom) by price. Customers looking for a higher end Merlot (regardless of where it is from) would shop mostly on the upper shelves while those looking for more daily drinkers and value shop in the middle and bottom.

    The problem comes with those looking for a UN type wine like Mike and finding the Chilean wines mixed with the Washington, California, Australia, other New Worlds and even Old World Vin de Pays wines labeled varietally.

    That’s where I always felt that a color tag system would be advantageous. You can keep all the wines of the same varietal together but assign a color (Green=Washington, Blue=California, Purple=Chile, etc) to various countries with highly visible cheat sheets around.

    That way a customer shopping the Merlot aisle looking for a particular region can hone in on their choice bottles more quickly.

    Alas, the logistical drawback is time and money in maintaining such a labeling system which means that it will never happen. It’s always going to benefit the bottom-line to stick with either the canned veg or UN systems that can be easily maintained.

  6. At Dolce Vita Wine Shop we organize our red wines geographically with a couple of exceptions. We have racks for sweet reds, local wines, box wines and a rack we call Red Blends (which makes no sense at all to wine geeks but perfect sense to many of our customers).

    Our white wines are organized by relative sweetness. We have a dry white wine wall, a medium sweet wall and a very sweet wall. We find that our customers tend to find one wall or another to be their happy place, and are willing to try adjacent wines with a similar taste profile.

    Works for us!

  7. The Wine Styles stores have an interesting approach. They position their inventory by styles (https://winestyles.com/winestyles/). They position their approach to the segment of the consumer marketplace that is seeking to broaden their understanding and experience without having to do a lot of personal studying. The “styles” approach seems to be quite effective and welcomed by their clientele.

  8. The alphabetical by varietal within price range by country, at least for New World wines is at least 30 years old. I first implemented it in the early nineties. With more labels, harder to manage these days, but still I think the most reliable, and easiest to learn for the consumer.

    I like Amber’s colored tag suggestion and don’t think it would be that difficult to implement and maintain, as long as it doesn’t get too detailed

  9. Working as ‘the wine guy’ in a 1,500 bottle wine shop in the Wash DC metro area has been eye-opening and perplexing. It’s organized in the ‘standard format’ you describe here and in ‘Wine Wars’. Our shop serves customers in every demographic, from experienced to helpless. I’m there primarily for customers in need of rescue. Observing how people in each demographic shops reveals that they use different methods, but most expect the ubiquitous ‘standard format’.

    I’ve noticed several purchasing behaviors that have stood the test of time: customers expect wines to stay in one place, move them and they’re frustrated or confused. Customers who can’t remember a wine’s name prefer almost always fall back to choosing based on label designs. Everyone feels that wine prices are constantly rising (and they’re right, overall). Most people still believe that price reflects quality, even if the price difference is only $2 or $3. Lastly, most people rely on a personal recommendation, even if they’ve spent 20 minutes scanning bottles with their smart phone apps.

    Imagine a restaurant menu with over 1,500 menu items! Organizing it, in any logical arrangement, would only go so far. It seems personal recommendations seems to produce the best results for repeat business, and yes, I still believe a better way to navigate the wine wall is needed.

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