One of Britain’s bigger supermarket chains tried to turn its back on heavy wine discounting in November – and was reportedly rewarded by falling sales and a reduced market share. Many of its customers, it seems, simply won’t buy wine when it is not offered at apparently attractively low promotional prices. To most readers of this piece, that attitude is probably hard to understand: wine forms part of their weekly shopping list and a discount of any kind simply shifts their focus from one bottle to another.

Many of those supermarket customers, however, I suspect view wine in much the same way that I view smoked salmon. I like it; in fact I like it a lot, but it’s far from a necessity in my fridge and I generally hesitate when I consider how much the purchase of 200g is going to add to amount of cash I’ll be handing over at the checkout. When I see a half-price offer on smoked salmon, I’m much more likely to buy it. Most weeks, there’s no smoked salmon in my basket. Maybe many “wine drinkers” take a similar view.

When the recession was in its early stages, Tesco recorded that 400,000 of its customers had simply stopped buying wine – a number that apparently grew as austerity bit more deeply. Of course wine drinking is a relatively recently acquired habit for many in the UK. It is instructive to look across the channel where the tradition of washing a meal down with wine is more deeply ingrained. The 2010 official French figures (produced by Agrimer on the basis of a survey of 4000 representative consumers) suggest that wine’s place on the dinner table is no longer nearly as secure as one might suppose. Less than a third (31%) say that wine is “almost always” or “often” present when people are eating a “meal produced with care”. Five years earlier, the figure was 39%. 

A French dinner party laid for ten is, according to the same research, may well include two guests (18%) who rarely or never consume the wine on the table. (Again, the figure has risen from 16% in 2005).

Until those of us who treat wine as part of our daily lives (and, in many cases refuse to accept the validity of these Gallic statistics) acknowledge that we might not be typical examples of the animal officially known as “wine drinker”, we are not going to be able to engage in a meaningful conversation about the way the wine industry should be run. Listening to some of us pontificating about vintages, regionality, terroir and the need to stop discounting in the UK is like overhearing a team from the Royal Opera House discussing the way they are going to run a pop radio station.

I happen to dislike the dishonesty of fake half-price discounting of wine, and frankly wonder when I see the “half-price” sticker on the pack of smoked salmon. But when it’s a product I’ve bought and enjoyed in the past, do I pop it in my basket? Of course I do. Along, I’d guess, with 90% of the people I see in these discussions lamenting the existence of the BOGOF wine offer.

  1. You're absolutely right Robert. We all firmly believe that we are immune to advertising too. In the same way that everyone believes themselves to be an above average driver and in possession of an above average sense of humour (which by definition cannot be true), we all fall prey to the marketing trickery whether we are prepared to acknowledge it or not. Almost everyone will have bought two of something where one would have been ample (or superfluous), sometimes even ending up throwing away the 'free' one as it will have passed its consume by date.
    Every so often some 'progressive' retailer will abandon the whole '.99' thing, usually with some fanfare about having respect for their customers. But recidivism is inevitable. A house in Mayfair will be often priced at, say, £7,990,000 as though anyone dropping 8 million on a house wouldn't see through that. But psychologically, we just don't. All of us. The reason why the soft, squashy, high turnover, low price fresh fruit and vegetables are the first thing in the supermarket against all common sense? Because having bought that stuff, we treat ourselves to a whole pile of overpriced unhealthy crap we neither want, nor knew we needed, as a reward for our own virtue.
    A fake bargain dents the supermarkets' profits a whole lot less than a real one (and as we know it's the suppliers who fund them anyway). This is not a wine-specific thing, and it isn't going to go away. Far better to find ways to work with it, than to bemoan it continually.

  2. Correct Robert! And it has always been so..once you establish your position it stays. Bogof has always been severe…. But that was where the spin stopped…or has it?

  3. Great stuff… Must tell you the conversation the [other members of the Winestars World] team had about the same topic…
    Once you start it, there is no going back and you are known for discounting, the brand ends up lacking credibility… Transparency is key if you want to sustain credibility and quality and being real.

  4. good analogy although Salmon lacks the widely available product range – but discount is king and wineries need to adapt

  5. never had anybody round me and me Julie's house and ask for a variety:

    red white rose fizz [is] as far as it gets

  6. Thanks for the contribution from Australia. UK commentators often imagine that their market is unique in its reliance on discounting. The half-price model certainly is a British malady, but cost-cutting and discounting is a global phenomenon.

  7. The salmon is a good analogy. I have on rare occasions tried the cheaper salmon, but it is thin watery tasteless pap. So I stick to the firm, flavourful expertly leafed salmon and don't compromise, as I regret it when I do. Better a £5 in my tummy than £3 in the bin.

  8. As a South African , who grew up teething on smoked salmon wings, yup the fatty jucy part the dont sell anymore by the gils, and who helps supervise Kosher salmon production in Australia, I can recognise a bargain when I see one,. Sadly the best salmon Huon here [made by the harris family originaly from UK cannot be beat]. The home bands are fair, but thick well smoked, firm easy to lift off slices of a premium product, are hard to beat. Average price 36.00 per KG in KG The same product will be double the price in 50g packs. Stay with your favourite brand, its never discounted much, but at least it wont be a waste of money. The cheaper scandinavian frozen salmons, although akso kosher are like soggy dish cloths, and a complete waste of money. Salmon consumption in Australia has takena meterioric rise is saels

  9. If I try and recommend a wine not on offer customers rarely buy because they are so used to buying the deals

  10. Of course we agree on that – but a) there's the usage issue. Smoked salmon on canapes is often chosen with less discrimination and b) given their cyclical nature, most of the half-price offers are bought by people who actually know what they are going to get and are satisfied with the experience they had last time. I buy Haagen Dasz or Green & Black at half price for example. Maybe many of the buyers of the watery salmon find it satisfactory – for them.

  11. Ice cream another good one. g&b my absolute fave and do pay full price for it. I rejoice if on offer. haagen I only buy on offer as it is thin watery pap in comparison, and then i smother it in Rowse choc sauce. I can see though that 'normal' people would only buy what's on offer, as it seems to almost always be. I like the usage point to re salmon, though does usage re wine mean occasion? The word 'satisfactory' is also relevant as to me 'satisfactory' = 'disappointing'. Perhaps all these things are due to standards, expectation and commitment.

  12. You're spot on. I buy good expensive wine when I'm flush. I look for good inexpensive wine the rest (most) of the time. I very occasionally buy 200g of premium smoked salmon. I commonly buy 500g of smoked salmon at the same or similar price ($A15-20 — feeling faintly guilty if it's from Denmark rather than Tasmania). All wines seem to be discounted (mostly artificially). Only problem is avoiding the plethora of poor and ordinary wine out there; all the smoked salmon is pretty good!

  13. A few considerations about this post. Firstly, which supermarket? The reason I am asking the question is that, with regard to wine and particularly new world wines, they are available from more than one supermarket and some of their shoppers, hence the initial question, shop around. It will be interesting to know how other supermarkets have performed to see whether its or their direct competitors has seen an increase to compensate for it. Second, the” it's a product I've bought and enjoyed in the past, do I pop it in my basket? Of course I do.” But how often does it happens? How often do we see good wines on offer? Rarely if never, and if sometime we find them, often there is a reason behind. I have seen poor vintages on offer, wines that are passing their best or getting close, wine with still a long way to go before being ready that were not shifting, vintages that needed to make space for the next one, do you think supermarket shoppers are aware of them or simply buy in to the “brand”? Last consideration is about the supermarkets’ brand. Every supermarkets is a brand, it tells what they stand for and how they do things, if Aldi was starting to sell very expensive wines, they wont sell any and we all guess why, so are Tesco and Asda, lesser Sainsbury, however, Mark & Spencer or Waitrose could still sell wines without discounting them, which takes me back to the first questions. Final consideration, supermarket shoppers, who are they, what they do, what they buy? People wanting to spend money on wine dont go to supermarkets, because, if we take off the BOGOF or offers, supermarkets wines actually cost the same if not more than from a retailer, tested for the Italian wines in UK supermarkets.

  14. Love the salmon comparison! The analogy I make frequently with my fellow USA wine nerds is: Wine = Israel.

    Here's what I mean. In our news media, especially, we are taught that we are to “support” Israel, without any real insight as to what that means. To run for office and be thought of as “Anti-Israel” is the kiss of death. It's a topic that supposedly we need to be experts in in order to be considered sophisticated/worldly, but honestly, find completely overwhelming. So we B.S. it as much as possible, while quietly assuming most of our peers are doing the same.

  15. Catherine's point is interesting; spotted Yalumba Y Series Merlot on discount at £6.99 in Morrison's the other day, whilst the Oxford Landing Merlot was £10.69 in the Co-op. Lines between ranges are being blurred in an effort to retain volume.

  16. Lots to respond to here Andrea. The supermarket in question was Sainsbury. I don't have data on sales in other retailers but am sourcing it.
    You load the dice when asking how often we find “good” wines on offer. “Good” by whose definition. I'd guess that the people who buy Dino or Ogio Pinot Grigio from Tesco at “half price” believe they are getting a good wine – and are happy to pick up a bottle from among the 90+% that are sold on cyclical discounts.

    You boldly state that Waitrose “could still sell wines without discounting them”. Hmmm My loca branch makes much of the fact that its prices are matched against 1000 products in Tesco – or the number of discounted products on its shelves.

    I half-agree with your comment that “people wanting to spend money on wine don't go to supermarkets”, but I'm not quite sure who those people are. The 10% who shop in indies where £20 are still hard to sell?

  17. I bought barbera Reserva Rioja in tesco for £7. A few weeks later I was able to purchase it for under £4.50 (probably its true worth). Yesterday it was on sale for £13 !! I suggest it will soon be offered with a false discount for £9 …. I now buy wine from Majestic, Laithwaites, Mcdonald Wines and other independents as I Just can't trust supermarkets to give value for money. Most independents have deals that seem more real. They also have wines to sample which is helpful and fun.

    Similarly, as a general rule, I buy salmon and fresh fish from a fishmonger. Now I'm a regular I'm offered deals here too.

    To help everyone I believe supermarkets should be forced to display the highest and lowest price a product was for sale in store over a 12month period. We can then judge for ourselves if its a real deal.

    As a point I've started buying meat from a butchers as I can honestly say it generally has more flavour and provides better service and advice although price isn't always cheaper than the supermarket.

    I have found my shopping experience is more enjoyable and rewarding when purchasing from independents.

    @Ian_WINE (Twitter)

  18. Thanks Ian. I agree that a variation from £4.50 to £13 does make it hard to understand the true value of a wine. As opposed to the value of real butchers and fishmongers – if you're lucky enough to still have one nearby.

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