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Tag Archives: three-tier system

Winebits 375: Grocery store wine edition

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grocery store wineThis week, how grocery stores are changing the wine business:

Suing the state: Texas doesn’t allow non-residents to own more than five liquor stores, unless the owners are related to each other. This “just us kinfolk” exception (as a lawyer friend of mine calls it) has allowed Texas-owned chains like Spec’s and Twin Liquors to put together hundreds-store operations. It’s also why Walmart is suing the state to overturn the kinfolk law and why it and Kroger are pushing two bills in the state legislature to eliminate the exception. Neither are likely to go anywhere — courts have traditionally ruled in favor of these kinds of laws, citing three-tier and its constitutional protections, and the legislature almost always avoids offending the big Texas liquor chains. Still, that Walmart and Kroger are willing to spend the money on a seemingly hopeless cause speaks volumes about how they think the world is changing. Starting now may give them a chance later to reform beer, wine, and spirits retail sales in Texas.

Stopping at the supermarket: Nielsen reports that U.S. grocery stores (including Walmart, Costco, and their ilk) sold $8.6 billion in wine in 2014, which accounted for about 42 percent of the country’s store-purchased wine. In other words, almost half of the wine sold in 2014 came from a grocer. Imagine what that number would be if Pennsylvania and New York allowed grocery store wine sales. We can write about Robert Parker all we want, but that’s not the news in the wine business. The real news, the development that wine writers should be paying attention to, is that most of our readers have no idea (and don’t care) who Parker is, and they want to know what wine to buy at their Walmart or Kroger. Which is why a grad student named Mark Thornton may be the next Parker.

One more time: Speaking of Pennsylvania, its state house has approved a bill to end the state’s liquor store monopoly. This is apparently as much a tradition in the Keystone State as Punxsutawney Phil, and makes as much difference in changing the law as groundhogs do in forecasting weather. Still, the debate is fun. Said one lawmaker: “The other side is talking about the No. 1 drug, alcohol, like it’s milk and bread. We’ve got to have more of it, more convenience, for the No. 1 drug in our communities.” The other side, that wants to reform the system, didn’t miss a beat, either: “Even Russia and China have given up on the idea of a state-run monopoly.” So you’re a commie if you oppose reform, and a crack dealer if you support it. Politics is a grand business, no?

The end of the three-tier system?

winetrends

three-tier systemPaul Mabray, who knows this stuff better than almost anyone, says the end of the three-tier system is coming. It will probably be later rather than sooner, but Mabray is convinced that technology, combined with three-tier’s built-in inefficiency, will make the system obsolete.

The Wine Curmudgeon mentions this because my views on three-tier are well known. The system, which mandates how wine is sold in every state, says consumers can’t buy wine from the producer (with some exceptions), but must buy it from a retailer, who must buy it from a distributor. Buying wine from an Internet retailer, the way we buy clothes from Overstock.com or computers from New Egg, is almost always illegal. In this, three-tier is constitutionally protected, so we’re stuck with it until the end of time or until we reform campaign finance laws, which is about the same thing.

But Mabray, the chief executive officer for VinTank, which helps wineries use the Internet and social media to market their products, sees the situation from a completely different perspective.

Market access should not be constricted by antiquated regulations, but by market choice,” he says. “Yes, there needs to be regulation to enforce a regulated product but forcing it to go through a mandated tier structure is outdated.”

Mabray said this during last month’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry presentation, and I was so intrigued by what he said that we talked about the subject this week. He reiterated it during our chat: Trying to stop the advance of technology with artificial barriers is almost always futile, and three-tier will eventually break itself.

How that will happen involves lots of supply chain geekiness, but Mabray is convinced that Internet technology — the same thing that has allowed Amazon to make money by selling diapers for next day delivery, unheard of a decade ago — will come to wine. Three-tier as we know it will break down because it will be too expensive and too complicated to work the way it does now. Even the distributors, who have the most to lose, will want to change it to make it more consumer-friendly.

Perhaps. One reason our views are so different (besides my crankiness) is that Mabray sees an economic model ruled by efficiency. I see an economic model ruled by state legislatures with vested interests, whose idea of a supply chain is something you tow your car with. I hope he’s right about this, but I won’t be surprised if he isn’t.

More about three-tier and direct shipping:
Could the Internet screw up direct shipping?
Amazon.com, Prohibition, and the three-tier system
The Supreme Court and retail direct shipping

Could the Internet screw up direct shipping?

winetrends

direct shippingThe 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.

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