Who Moved My Wine? The New Wine Buyers Who Play “Beat the Clock”

“Beat the Clock” was a television game show that made its debut on March 23, 1950 and ran in its original form until 1961 (it returned in several variations over the years and is currently available in a format featuring child contestants).

The show’s lasting appeal lies in the fact that even simple things become difficult, sometimes comically so, when the clock is ticking and the pressure mounts. If you remember the chocolate factory scene in “I Love Lucy,” you already know what I mean.

Who knew that buying wine would become a Beat the Clock challenge? But that’s what it has happened.

Supermarket Beat the Clock

Trying to beat the clock is fun and games on television, but it can be serious business in the real world. That’s why wine companies need to understand that supermarket wine shopping has changed in many ways — and the ticking clock is part of the problem.

I learned this by reading “How to Reach the Ever-Changing Beer Shopper” by Peter Frost on MillerCoors’s “Behind the Beer” blog. It is an interview with Jeff Long, MillerCoors’s “chief commercial solutions officer” (I’m guessing that has something to do with sales and marketing). Long notes how supermarket shopping’s clock has shifted in just a few years.

“Seven years ago, more than one-third of grocery store trips were for a stock-up. Shoppers would spend 45 minutes to an hour in a store, pushing a cart up and down the aisles and preparing for the week,” according to the article.

5 aisles, 10 items, 14 minutes … Go!

“Today? The stock-up represents less than a quarter of trips. A full 75 percent of all grocery trips take less than 14 minutes, with shoppers entering fewer than five aisles and buying fewer than 10 items.” And, I need to note, they are doing this while glancing (or more) at their smartphones.

Does this sound right to you? I have never timed myself, but I think my shopping tends  more toward “strategic strike” than casual stock-up. So I guess I’m playing Beat the Clock.

The ticking clock affects beer purchases, according to Long. Instead of pausing at the beer wall and considering the dozens or even hundreds of options, he says, many buyers have already narrowed down their choices by focusing on the intended type of occasion. Then they make a lighting strike and move on.

Selling beer in this environment requires having a clear identity and making it obvious for the fast-moving consumer. “All of this combines to present new challenges for retailers to convert those visits into purchases and for suppliers to reach them before they get there,” according to Frost. “As center-store shopping shrinks and shopping trips become quicker,” Long notes,  “front-of-store and out-of-aisle merchandising that plays off occasions is critical.”

What About Wine?

Since this is The Wine Economist and not The Beer Economist we need to think about what lessons this might have for wine and I think some of them are pretty obvious. Wine buyers and beer buyers are often different people, but they live in the same world and make buying decisions in same environment. Which means that they play beat the clock when they come up again the wine wall.

Two observations come quickly to mind. The first is that buying wine isn’t easy if you are playing beat the clock. Sorting through the hundreds of choices at prices that might range from less than $4 to more than $100 (based on my last visit to our local Safeway) requires focus. Beer is complicated, too, but it is easier to navigate than wine and, apparently, beer people know that the clock is ticking and respond accordingly. (I wrote about other types of problems of buying wine a few weeks ago.)

So maybe rushed consumers go for beer instead of wine. But maybe they don’t purchase either of them. In any case, it is easy to understand why buyers get anxious or confused, as one reader reported (see comments section of this recent column), when wines are moved around or changed. It upsets their well-planned strategy and wastes previous time. Who moved my wine! Arrrgh!

The second observation is that wines with clear, simple identities have an advantage when time and attention are scarce. Maybe this is a reason why branded wines seem to be winning the Land versus Brand battle these days. Safeway had a big stack of Butter Chardonnay right by the entrance near the deli when I stopped in today (that’s an example of the “front-of-store, out-of-aisle” display mentioned above).  I’ll bet a lot of shoppers grab a bottle or two here rather than confronting the complicated wine wall selection.

Fortunately all consumers aren’t playing beat the clock when they go to buy wine and supermarkets do their best to slow them down as they enter the store. But time is an issue and people who sell wine need to take this characteristic into account along with many others if they want to ring up strong sales.

And Beat the Clock may not be the biggest problem wine faces. While some shoppers want to minimize the time they spend in stores, other don’t want to go there at all, preferring home-delivery.  Wine buying is changing and wine selling needs to keep up.


Special thanks to longtime reader Ken B. for suggesting the I look at the Behind the Beer story.

4 responses

  1. How much time does it take to pick a $4 bottle of wine? Not much when the liklihood is you will drink it that night! Personally, I have never seen a $100 bottle of wine in a grocery store but then, you live in Washington with over-regulated wine sales. I suspect most choose by what is at eye level (except jug wines), as you and I both concluded after Sideways (where you and I noted the same anomaly – it led to a new career for you combining economics and wine). Your example of Butter Chardonnay provides insight to what style it will be.
    What is surprising is that regions like the Midwest are becoming much more awate of wine and value.. a big change.
    As for beer, it appears that PBR has found a secret as it is highly popular among millenials.

    • Washington state’s wine sales laws were changed a few years ago — we are no longer a control state. When I had my students analyze a local Safeway they found wines from under $3 per bottle equivalent (Franzia boxes) to very expensive wines in a locked cabinet, including one bottle of Crystal Chyampagne for over $200.

  2. I loved this post! It highlights the difference between buying wine in the moment and acquiring wine for a purpose. For me buying wine is never about beat the clock, it’s about setting a tone for a moment in time, a special event, a group of people, the weather on a particular day or a meal choice. That’s why I never buy wine at the Supermarket. I either go on-line and buy directly from winemakers I know and love or I visit a specialty wine shop where I can commune with the wine in solitude (no carts bumping into me) while I contemplate my decision. I keep a small cellar for immediate consumption and really special occasions (I have a few reds that are over twenty years old still waiting for the right moment) so my wine buys are either for an occasion, or to restock the cellar.

  3. Yikes – I’m guilty of inadvertently playing this game today at Whole Foods. Grabbed a bottle of Rose that I recognized without taking the time (or effort) to see what else was on their shelves. It was on an “out of aisle” display too.

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