It’s a big blog this time – a manifesto of sorts.
Earlier in the year I applied for a ‘wine fellowship’ called Working With Wine. It’s open to wine professionals and consists of a few exams, a couple of ridiculously educational seminars (which I covered in part here and here) and an essay submission – which is what I’m publishing today.
When I read one of the essay questions, one stood out clearly above all others: Discuss your work as a retailer or sommelier, indicating the strategies that you use to encourage your customers to try new labels, unfamiliar varieties, or emerging regions and countries
My response allowed me to get to the root of exactly why I do what I love with LTLT – and I thank all of you for coming along for the ride as we take wine retail and service to somewhere that it hasn’t been before. So without further ado, I hope you enjoy this and if there’s ever a blog that you’re going to share around your friends, I hope that this is the one
Are you being served?
Let’s be honest with ourselves; for a hospitality sector that is run for the most part by passionate and professional people, wine retail has a service problem. Need some evidence? Just look at the market share held by the minimal-service offerings of the ‘big two’ and the proliferation of online options that sell purely on the basis of a discount.
Not only do all of these customers deserve more from their retail offerings; many of them want more but can’t find it.
These under-served customers will stick steadfastly to the labels and styles that they know because the unknown, without service, will forever remain the unknown. Many will make a purchasing decision based on the size of the “discount” not because they are bargain hunters, but because they use the high initial price as an indicator of quality while using the low sticker price to lower the risk of exploration.
Wine retail is unique in that the veritable sea of grapes, labels, regions and styles, makes it incredibly difficult for the consumer to relate the price on the bottle with their own definition of value. And this is further muddied once you overlay each customer’s personal preference! The opportunity for good service to create a higher value customer outcome could not be clearer and every under-served customer represents a lost opportunity for the retail industry.
Furthermore, people love to talk about wine. They crave a story to accompany their choices. The reason that many of us (myself included) purchase more wine than they need when visiting a great cellar door is because we fall in love with the story behind it. This is no different to why people tolerate a mediocre wine from a ‘deals’ website: they have a story to tell (even if that story is simply about the great deal they received). Give the consumer a story, and it is relived every time a bottle is opened.
So, what if service was the product? What if getting the story was an integral part of every purchase, and you couldn’t purchase without an interaction that focussed on your tastes?
This is exactly the concept I have created with my business ‘Like This Love That’ (LTLT). LTLT is an online retail offering where service is the product. Wine is sold explicitly to the tastes of the customer and not purely on the label, price and/or discount.
I started this business because I saw a huge number of people who seriously enjoyed wine, but had never considered their capacity to truly love it. Without ever being offered the service to nurture and expand their tastes they were ‘happy enough’ but not nearly as well served as they could be.
A recent study (Carpe Vinum) commissioned by the London Wine Fair highlighted that this effect was amplified when observing consumers fitting into the ‘Generation Y’ age bracket – who were reported to feel that wine lacks the consistency of beer and spirits, that many wine lists are ‘overwhelming’, and that they prefer buying familiar brands through traditional channels despite confidence in the online world. Fitting into this age bracket myself I wholeheartedly agree – this is the next generation of wine consumers and these emerging habits should be ignored at the peril of the industry.
Many people know much more about wine than they give themselves credit for. Many can clearly articulate their likes and dislikes via naming a range of brands, and many can go far further than this while still professing to know nothing about wine.
Showing people that they can clearly articulate themselves not only empowers the customer, but forms the most important part of any service relationship: trust. Empowerment and trust, once earned, break down the barriers against exploration and allow visibility into a world of wine that they’d never known existed.
The first time people shop at Like This Love That (LTLT), I generally offer them wines that mirror the tastes they’ve described. This shows that they can both communicate their preferences more clearly than they think, and that a quick email conversation can yield them a selection of great wines without the risk of getting something that is not to their taste.
Once the barriers start to fall, they come down fast. Rules long held are reassessed in the name of ‘trying something new’, and palates open up to styles and flavours that may have seemed incongruous in the recent past. Unknown labels can be viewed with suspicion, but a trusting customer will approach hitherto unknown wines as if they could be new favourites rather than a risky step away from what is comfortable. This is critical to a small independent retailer such as myself whose range is closer to that of a restaurant than it is to a large bottle shop.
The next strategy I use to allow people to make unbiased assessments of their wine is to reduce price-based expectation when trying new things. Unless they have requested specific wines, LTLT purchases are made on the average price per bottle across the mix. This allows me to choose wines at a range of price points while still sticking to the budget range of the customer. Whilst it’s easy enough to find out the price of each bottle by looking at the invoice, most customers will simply try the wine and decide how much they like it without focussing on the exact price. This is incredibly powerful as it stops people from lowering their expectations when trying a cheaper wine and raising them when trying a more expensive bottle.
All of these actions contribute towards one clear goal: to bring good wine service to a section of the market that doesn’t see enough of it. Once people have discovered the possibilities, they are more likely to consider when purchasing: Am I being served?