Saturday, June 15, 2019

Wine Consumption Probably Won't Return to "Normal"

      I Seek The Finest Knights in the Land

We work in the most interesting and wonderful industry on earth. Two things I love about the industry are the infinite palate of interesting souls and the sheer volume of optimists within it. Ours is a happy place; a Camelot of sorts. It's an industry where losing an arm is viewed as just a scratch in some corners of the realm.

I love to be an optimist and predict safe and clear travels when the facts support it. But sometimes a foe might be blocking our path, and we need to take up arms. 

Several years ago when I authored the Annual SVB Wine report, I was quite optimistic and outlined all of the positive influences filling our sails. But this past year I was more gloomy; a Black Knight, and that bothered some of the optimists around me.

Optimism is good but blind optimism, the kind that denies the loss of both arms when they lie on the ground ... that isn't so good. Blind optimism is a poison that keeps us from taking a critical view of important trends and keeps us from committing to timely solutions. 

For my friends who just don't want to hear any of the gloomy facts below (along with some accompanying solutions), we'll call it a draw. You can stop reading and enjoy the next video instead. 

Now Back to reality...

Well then ... according to the BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey, Americans spend about 1% of income on alcohol, no matter the age. One could impute from that statement, we just need to wait until millennials are older and they will spend their 1%. In fact, just waiting is indeed the suggestion I often get from optimists. 

That's a rational view because the millennial generation's median age is 30, and boomers didn't really hit wine hard until their median age was 35. But that statement - spending one percent, is about total alcohol spending, not wine, and young consumers aren't treating wine as kindly as craft spirits and beer these days.

In the State of the Industry Report, we noted that millennials haven't increased their share of premium wine purchasing in four years. They just aren't engaging with wine yet, except on special occasions. But they are drinking craft beer and craft spirits more often.

As it relates to alcohol, there is another trend that bears watching. As the nearby slides show, again from BLS data, the under 25 age group in red is spending less and less of their hard-earned income on any kind of alcohol! That means they are spending it elsewhere.

In the first slide, we can see the percentage of their total income that the group is spending as a declining percentage. In the second slide, we see that they are spending a declining amount of per capita income on alcohol as well. And again, that's an overall statement on alcohol, not just wine alone.

     No Amount of Wine is Good For You

The section title is now a line that's being repeated from politicians across the world and stems from a controversial study. It doesn't matter if it's true. That's what's in the narrative.

The young consumer is being frightened away from beverage alcohol by the hijacking of science and the continuing onslaught of negative press coming from anti-alcohol groups. We covered that in the State of the Industry Report as well and noted the increasing volume and outlandish claims coming from that group. 

Today there is a growing trend toward wellness and that includes abstinence from any form of alcohol. Without any kind of response from the wine community to reference science that shows moderate wine consumption is healthy, we will see the negative trends continue.

We know that the growth of premium wine sales is slowing and total volume growth of wine has turned negative; something else we pointed out in the Annual Wine Report. Off-premise growth is displayed in the graph near this text. Wine is being hurt by the combination of the boomer moving to retirement and the young consumer's current lack of engagement. That's changing wine demand from what we've grown accustomed during the past 20 years of premiumization.

So the question at hand is, with the negative trends we are watching, will wine consumption ever return to our view of "normal?"

You won't like my answer, but don't be surprised if young consumers drink less alcohol tomorrow, and those who do drink continue to embrace craft spirits and beer instead of wine. 

If that statement isn't too gloomy, then you are an open-minded realist and undoubtedly quite attractive as well, so I encourage you to read on.

      Four Reasons Millennials Are Not Good Wine Consumers 

  1. Wine is expensive compared to craft beer and spirits. One 750ml bottle of a well-known pinot noir costs $30 and has 5 servings that have to be consumed that evening or it will oxidize. The same size bottle of Makers Mark bourbon can be found for the same price, has 25 servings, and will stay drinkable for months. Another way to look at it: Jon Moramarco computes that on average, wine is $2.15 per five-ounce glass serving, versus $1.28 for a bottle of beer and 0.93 cents per shot of spirits.  Premium spirits are a better value compared to wine - and bartenders know that they get better margins for spirits over premium wine too.  Our frugal millennial consumer knows wine is comparatively more expensive.
  2. Millennials are more health-conscious than prior generations. The wine business is being out-marketed by spirits producers who tout health-related features of their products such as low calories, no added sugar, gluten-free, non-GMO, organic, sustainable, etc. Wine? We don't yet put calories on our labels, we stopped promoting the massive body of science showing the health benefits of moderate wine consumption and with the anti-alcohol movement gaining traction in the narrative, even alternative non-alcoholic and engineered alcoholic products are starting to gain favor. The industry reaction? Some wineries are trying to adapt by making non-alc products, and many are trying to find a way to move into cannabis. Our health-conscious millennial consumer is moving away from alcohol as a category.
  3. Millennials might not collect wine as did their boomer parents. Millennials are renting more than past generations at a similar time in life, and by all indications aren't expected to have the same degree of homeownership in life. But when they do buy homes, they look for more compact spaces. A premium liquor bar takes up less room than a wine cellar but still supports a family who entertains. Our space-starved millennial consumers probably won't collect wine like their parents.
  4. When premium wine took off in 1994, there was no craft beer or craft spirit option. Wine became the choice for boomers because it was the only truly premium product, and I might add, it was a better value in 1994. Today, the typical beverage alcohol consumer drinks across categories - beer, wine, and spirits. Only 7% identify as pure wine consumers today. Our practical millennial consumers are weighing their premium bang for their buck and are finding wine wanting compared to spirits in particular.
Today the landscape is different from the 1990s when boomers drove wine consumption higher. Craft spirits and craft beer are pure substitutes for wine now and both are increasingly paired with meals as the millennials repurpose the use of spirits and craft beer to align with their tastes and budgets. Add to that "gullet-share" losses from non-alcoholic beverages and factor in a future with CBD infused wellness drinks, and there is less room for wine tomorrow - unless we change the game we're playing.

      Wine Drinking Grows with Age. Just be Patient ...

There is no question that beer and spirits have been the entry point into alcoholic beverages as long as most of us remember. And the pattern we're comfortable reciting is that all consumers evolve to wine as they age. That's what the chart nearby is saying about the current state. But consumers haven't always moved from beer and spirits into wine due to age. 

The Mature Generation - the people coming back from WWII as portrayed in Mad Men were beer and spirits drinkers. 

Coming from Prohibition and the Great Recession, the Matures largely bought alcohol beverage with a practical approach of ethanol per dollar - bang for your buck. Wine didn't compete well in that equation because it was lower alcohol and traditionally sold in smaller formats. To compete with spirits, wine became fortified in the '50s or sold in gallon jugs that were mass-produced in order to drive the cost of production down so the price could be dropped and the producer still could cover a profit margin.

That approach worked in the fringes of the adult population in the 50s and 60s, but never really got that generation engaged with wine as their first choice. 

The mature cohort remained more beer and spirits consumers throughout much of their consuming lives. Their rotation to wine started only when the wine industry gave compelling reasons to evolve from beer and spirits. It wasn't age. It was producing a product, marketing, and then selling wine that produced that change. And those consumers were in their 60s and 70s at that point.

The popularization of wine and move from beer and spirits really happened in the 90s with boomers who broke away from their parent's traditions and moved to premium wine after starting in cheap spirits and beer. The lesson is that offspring don't always follow the path of their parents.

To be successful, we need to give the young consumer more compelling reasons to be wine consumers. Hoping they will grow into wine isn't a good choice. As I say often, "Hope is not a strategy."

If we don't evolve the way we sell and market wine, we very well might suffer the same result the Mature generation took, and see young consumers staying with spirits and beer as their preferred choice for beverage alcohol. But there are things we can do to avoid that outcome.

     What's are some Solutions to the Gloomy Trends?

For wine producers, I don't believe scurrying off to non-alcohol and cannabis-infused drinks as some are doing, or coming up with the next pink RTD wine cocktail are the right approaches. We should stay focused on our strengths. But we need an on-ramp for the new consumer which means we have to evolve our marketing. 

We have to find the price, product, packaging, promotion, experience, quality, and any other "P" we can think of, and begin engaging with the young consumer now. We can't "wait until they can afford wine" because the rest of the beverage alcohol industry is already changing their games to take advantage of the current trends. We are being out-flanked and the game is time-sensitive.

The first and easiest thing to do is to beg our Marketing, AVA, and Industry Associations to keep the valid moderate-consumption research at their fingertips and/or fund positions that give credible journalists and law-makers the other side of the anti-alcohol stories that are flooding the press. 

The Wine Institute used to have a full-time technical position that did just that, but the position within has been vacant for more than a decade. It ended when wine consumption started to soar and the message of health was embedded into the narrative. I've asked several in the Board of Directors to consider that and I know I've been heard, but we should all ask that the position be reinstituted and be willing to pay for it. And we should all look to other industry associations to do the same.

The second thing we need to do is evolve the way we talk about wine. This is the first time in American retail history that there are two very large cohorts at opposite ends of their buying lives - and each has different values and financial capacity. The categories doing the best in retail today are those who figure out how to increase demand from both cohorts.

I appreciate the spirit of those who say "we need to stop making wine so complex," but I disagree because the dominant buyers of wine are still people who have appreciated the way wine has been marketed. We have to keep the older consumers and market the way they prefer BUT AT THE SAME TIME, adapt to the new consumer, giving them products, and the positioning that appeals to them. That's not easy, but we aren't really trying. The spirits industry is trying, and they have the best growth rates in all of beverage alcohol. 

While wellness is a trend, inauthentic wellness claims will, in the end, backfire as snake oil. We're starting to see some of that with the recent LeCroix litigation which has cut their stock value in half.  But of all the alc. beverage categories, wine is unique. It's about as simple as it could be. It has the best science around health. It is often grown from sustainable or biodynamic farming. If we put the ingredients on the back of a bottle it would say something like, 'this wine is made from sustainably grown winegrapes with small amounts of naturally occurring and added sulfites. Nothing else.' 

Optimistically speaking, I believe the wine industry always has responded to a challenge when it's made clear. I believe we have the opportunity to recast the way we sell and market wine and see double-digit growth rates again. We may indeed see wine sales return to what we are used to if we take action ... Or did you stop at the Sesame Street Video?

What's Your Opinion?

  • Should we just wait another five years and hope the millennial will move to wine? 
  • What are you doing to evolve your marketing (all the "Ps")?
  • How are you retaining the best of your message for the existing customers, and still engaging with the newer consumer?
  • Will you do your part and ask your Industry Associations to please get technical people in place who can respond to journalists and legislators seeking the other side of the story?

Please join this site on the top right-hand side of the page, and offer your thoughts below. I respond to everyone.

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Rob "Doom & Gloom" McMillan