Last week’s Wine Economist column was a working draft of my analysis of how the coronavirus pandemic might impact the wine industry. One focus was on the possibility of a recession in at least some parts of the world and slowing economic conditions generally.
An economic downturn would certainly impact the wine industry. Wine is, after all, a discretionary good for most consumers. I haven’t heard of anyone filling their Costco wagon with wine the way they have done with toilet paper, although I have seen reports of people stocking up for an anticipated quarantine period. People don’t stop drinking wine during times of economic uncertainty, but they do buy less and many scan the shelves more intensely looking for lower prices. The coronavirus alters the menu of wine-drinking occasions, which will have an impact, too.
Rising Recession Probability
Recessions now seem very likely in parts of the Eurozone (the three biggest economies — Italy, Germany, and France are all on the brink). A recession in Japan and perhaps Australia is also likely. Economic growth is projected to fall in China and a insiders are thinking the unthinkable — that the economy could not just slow down, but actually shrink as manufactured exports and domestic consumption both fall. Data on the first two months of the year paint a dark image.
Indicators are flashing red here in the United States, too. The stock market’s long bull run ended last week when equity prices fell by a total of more than 20% from their all-time highs. The Treasury bond market has been under intense pressure and a liquidity event cannot completely be ruled out. Corporate junk bonds are increasingly suspect as investors dump their riskiest holdings to cover loses elsewhere.
Significantly, we have seen truly historic economic interventions designed to head off economic collapse. The Fed’s $1.5 trillion liquidity injection is one example and Sunday’s announcement that it cut its benchmark interest rate target to near zero while also lowering the discount rate is another.. Yes, that’s trillion and zero. Quantitative easing is back, too, in a very big way.
President Trump’s national state of emergency declaration and the follow-up economic stimulus package are also noteworthy. The German government announced an economic stimulus “bazooka” and the end of their zero deficit policy. The list goes on. Some officials say they aren’t really worried about a recession. But it is obvious that they are.
Global financial markets opened with a thud on Monday following the Federal Reserve’s surprise announcement, dropping dramatically on the economic stimulus news and ended the trading session down more than 12 percent. Markets are forward looking for the most part and the big economic actions taken around the world seem to have used up all the ammunition to fight a recession foe. What’s left in case things get worse? I wonder where the markets will be when this column is automatically published early Tuesday morning?
Meanwhile, borders are closing, shutting down the flow of people and some services between countries while quarantine measures increasing limit activity within them. Spain has followed Italy into lockdown and other countries seem likely to adopt containment policies too.
The impacts are both global and local — a recent Financial Times article reports on the small business situation in Seattle, home of the first major U.S. outbreak.
Economic forecasters have raised the probability of a recession here in the U.S., although estimates vary and depend on many factors. If you take each sector into account, as the Wall Street Journal did over the weekend, the lost sales and incomes add up quickly. And then you have to factor in the impacts that don’t show up in the headlines. You know something’s really wrong when the NBA, NHL, Champions League, March Madness, SxSW, and Formula 1 all cancel or postpone events.
So the wine industry needs to prepare for the recession that may already be here in a practical sense (technically it takes two consecutive quarters of economic decline to meet the definition of a recession). But this recession is likely to be different from the financial crisis of 2008 or the dot com bust before that. It is important to be ready for what’s happening now and not prepare to fight the last war.
Past is Prologue?
There are too many potential impacts to attempt a comprehensive analysis here, so let me focus on just one area of concern: shifting patterns of direct-to-consumer sales.
Demand for wine fell significantly during the Great Recession and a lot of our discussion was about trading down. Consumers kept buying wine, but they moved down a shelf or two some of the time to save money. And they shopped the online discount sites where upscale wineries tried to quietly get rid of their excess inventory.
One of the main lessons that we learned from the Great Recession was the importance of direct-to-consumer sales and the power of the tasting room and wine club to generate margins when managed properly. Wine businesses made direct sales a bigger part of their strategy. Tasting rooms, wine clubs, personalized service — right down to that birthday phone call. Cooper’s Hawk, a surprisingly large wine business built around a tasting-room themed upscale casual restaurant chain, has nearly 300,000 wine club members. Amazing.
One thing that is different about today is that potential consumers seem to be shunning retail spaces as “social distancing” practices are adopted. Tasting room sales are down significantly, according to some reports, and Washington state wine leader Chateau Ste Michelle closed its facilities to visitors. In California, the government has suggested that tasting rooms and other non-essential businesses temporarily shut their doors.
As more and more people are tested for the coronavirus there are likely to be staff shortages, too. This isn’t just wine’s problem, but it is a problem because a revenue stream than many wineries rely upon is interrupted. What to do?
Is There an App for That?
Other retail sectors are looking to the internet to help them connect with consumers who hesitate to make physical contact and this seems to be a smart move for wine businesses, too. The cornoavirus is only going to make web-based storefronts and mobile ordering a bigger element of any wine business strategy. But web sales are different and it is not enough to simply stock your internet shelves and open the virtual door. You are going to need hooks to attract and hold customers.
Selling on the web invites quick and easy price comparisons. Price, which is always a factor, may become even more important since buyers are not in your tasting room to receive a warm welcome, personal attention, and samples of that reserve wine you keep under the counter for special guests.
Many businesses that entered the pandemic in weak shape will be victims of falling demand, supply chain interruptions, or financial collapse. We have already seen notices in Seattle of restaurants that are permanently shutting their doors.
Everyone hopes that the coronavirus pandemic will fade in a few weeks or months. Even if we are lucky and that timeline holds, a lot of economic damage will have been done and we will start to know if consumers will go back to their old patterns or if (and how much) things have really changed. What will we learn from this crisis? How will it shape longer term behaviors and strategies? Lots of questions and not yet many answers.
If you are looking for clues about what might happen in the U.S. and European markets when the coronavirus threat starts to pass, I recommend reading a recent Rabobank report about anticipated changes in the Chinese wine sector. China was hit first and hardest so far by the coronavirus and its experience might provide insights about what comes next in other regions.
About that bottle of “Coronavinus” wine shown above. Apparently it is real. I found it on a Spanish website selling for €19.