Vino-ligopoly: Zero-Sum Wine Game Strategies

Last week’s Wine Economist column was a thought experiment. What if the Covid recession was a game changer like the oil crisis of the 1970s? Both crises undermined fundamental economic assumptions and generated long-lasting impacts. In particular, drawing upon the work of MIT economist Lester Thurow, the oil crisis changed the nature of the game from positive-sum growth to zero-sum competition for shares of the pie.

Maybe the parallel is off base and maybe the game hasn’t really changed. But let’s think about the future the wine industry in the sort of slow growth, low inflation, high debt economic environment that many see on the horizon, with a focus on gaining market share in a stagnant economy.

Wine’s Zero-Sum Dilemma

Zero-sum market environments are nothing new for wine. As this OIV graph of wine demand volume shows, growth in the global wine market pie was once quite strong. Imagine a trend line for 2000-2007 and you’ll see what I mean.

Now draw a trend line for 2008- 2019. It’s pretty much a flat line, isn’t it?  The picture improves if we look at value and not volume because of the premiumization trend, but the the weight of stagnant volumes is still heavy.

So the focus is on gaining market share or raising margins rather than taking advantage of a growing overall market and this creates winners and losers. New Zealand has been a victor for many years. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc sales have increased year after year, a trend that has continued in the Covid crisis environment. Imports from other countries have struggled here in the U.S. market with even powerhouse Italy under pressure. But the Kiwi wine wave rolls on.

Trading Spaces: On and Off

Perhaps the most obvious example of Covid’s zero-sum impact on the wine market is in the shift from on-premise to off-premise sales. Bars and restaurants have suffered both because of government restrictions on opening and also because concerned consumers have avoided crowded places in general even when not officially restricted. Wine consumption overall has not changed very much, but where consumption takes place and where products are purchased has shifted significantly.

The shift to off-premise consumption has many impacts, especially for wine companies that have worked very hard to place products on restaurant wine lists and for emerging brands that use on-premise sales to get a foot in the door. Shifting your restaurant sales to shops and supermarkets is not as simple as throwing a switch. Supermarkets especially favor big brands and broad product lines and there is some evidence that consumption patterns have moved in this direction, too.

One important impact of this shift, as I explained in an April 2020 Wine Economist column, is consolidation throughout the supply chain. Consolidation is a trend that extends far beyond the wine sector, of course. In an increasingly zero-sum market environment, large firms want to get even larger both in order to reduce margin-sapping competition and also to be able to negotiate better terms and lower costs. It’s not exactly wine-opoly — more vin0-ligopoly (insider joke for economics majors who remember the difference between monopoly and oligopoly, which is competition among a few big players).

Wine Wars / Price Wars

Econ 101 teaches us that one way that firms try to gain an advantage in a zero-sum game scenario is by cutting prices. This can quickly degenerate into a price war, of course, which is the ultimate negative-sum game for sellers (and a bonanza for consumers), especially if overall demand is price inelastic.

Are we seeing price wars on the wine aisle? As I explained in a May 2020 Wine Economist column, wine prices may be falling and rising at the same time, making it tricky to pick out net effects. If you are like me, your email inbox or Facebook news feed usually contains at least one discount offer from a winery or wine club — sometimes at incredibly low prices.

Looking narrowly at off-premise data, it appears that price premiumization continues. Sales of $25+ wines surged early in the pandemic period, for example. But, as I noted in May, these high price sales replace even higher-priced on-premise purchases at least in part. Those consumers were actually trading down as they shifted from restaurant meals and wine to home consumption. This is not a price war because it is cross-channel consumer behavior, but it will have that feel for wineries that cannot easily shift sales from on- to off-premise markets.

Game Changers

It isn’t easy to win if you think of the market in zero-sum terms (although not everyone agrees on this — President Trump famously proclaimed that trade wars were easy to win). Although there are many different strategies to consider, three stand out in my mind.

The first strategy is to analyze changes in market conditions and focus closely on growth segments. There is no single wine market, so a stagnant environment can a bit like a duck on a lake — quiet on the surface, but turbulent underneath. I wrote about Precept Wine in 2019, for example, highlighting their “Willie Sutton” strategy of putting resources into growth segments.

The second is simple: accept that the game is zero-sum and play hard to win on those terms. This means being very aggressive in terms of cost and price and making sure you are on the winning side was consolidation unfolds. Being big doesn’t guarantee success (small can be beautiful in a profitable niche), but there is no great advantage to being middle-sized.

The final strategy is to try to change the game. If wine vs wine is zero sum, try to shift the game to one with better odds. Don’t sell wine, sell a lifestyle. Don’t sell wine, sell community, culture, celebrity, or culinary connections. Ship the wine, sell the dream. Hitch your wine to a horse that can carry it to new market niches. Product differentiation — that’s what it’s all about.

What’s new about this? Nothing. The most popular wine magazines, for example, have long featured food, travel, and lifestyle as hooks for their wine stories.

In fact, using product differentiation to create and protect a profitable market niche is standard “monopolistic competition” theory.  But now might be a great time to think about what makes your wine’s offer distinctive and what you can do to protect yourself from head-to-head zero-sum competition.

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