The perfect world of direct shipping — where we can buy any wine we want from any retailer we want, just like we buy computers or tennis shoes — will likely never happen, given the three-tier system and its death grip on the wine business. But, assuming we could make three-tier vanish, would direct shipping actually be that perfect?
Maybe. And then again, maybe not, says Steve Tadelis, Ph.D, an economist and Internet search expert at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Tadelis’ research, summarized quite nicely in this article from The Economist, has found that consumers don’t necessarily use the Internet the way we think they should. His work, based on search patterns on eBay from people shopping for classical music, found that price or the music itself didn’t necessarily matter. Sometimes, they were searching just to search.
“They were looking for music not so much to buy music as to learn about music,” he says. “And when they bought something, it wasn’t always for the lowest price. And I can see that applying to wine, where buying isn’t as important as learning about wine.”
In other words, we may not care that direct shipping will make possible the ultimate wine retail experience. We may still buy wine the same we always have, or do it in some way no one has figured out yet. Tadelis says this is because we know little about how consumers use the Internet; after all, the idea of Internet shopping is still very new in comparison to the centuries of traditional retail. We assume, because it seems logical, that consumers will shop online the same way they shop in a store. But that’s not necessarily true.
“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised by our results, but I was,” he says. “But that’s because I based my assumption on my behavior, which is searching for the best deal on items that I know I want, and because traditional economic theory says search is a friction, and that shoppers try to avoid friction. But searching on the Internet isn’t the same kind of friction as driving from store to store.”
Further complicating the issue: Shipping costs, which don’t figure into music purchases, and the idea that wine is experential, which means we tend to buy something we’ve had before, based on our experience with it. With music, it’s not only easier to experiment with something new, but Mozart is Mozart, regardless of who is performing it.
Finally, the idea that direct shipping will lower prices, since it will increase competition and make it easier to find the same wine for less, may not be entirely true. In some cases, it could increase demand, which would raise prices as part of something economists call the long tail. If I make a rare wine without an apparent audience, and I can only sell it from my winery, demand is limited to the people who visit my winery. But if I sell it over the Internet, millions of people could learn about it, and I will be able to sell the wine more easily and at a higher price. This could lead, says Tadelis, to more experimentation and more unique and intriguing wines.