Once upon a time, human beings traded with beads. Then they developed coins and eventually paper money and cheques, before these metamorphosed into plastic, and now the ‘virtual’ character of services like ApplePay and the near-incomprehensibility of Bitcoin. Behind all of these lay some kind of value system that was understood by both parties to the transaction, even if a form of currency conversion was sometimes required.
Just as different countries have their own kinds of money, the 21st century has spawned an array of intangible currencies, among which is something that UK supermarkets internally call ‘shoppers’ currency’. According to a recent article on supermarket psychology in the UK consumer magazine, Which?, this is made up of a trio of components: cash, time and angst. The most successful retailer today, it is suggested, is the one that requires the customer to expend the least in each of these areas. A combination of low prices, good store layout and signposting, and speedy, simple checkouts, therefore makes for a winning strategy.
Offering attractive prices is the most straightforward of this trio to achieve, depending on sourcing, negotiation, private labelling, efficient logistics and low margins.
The German discounters Lidl and Aldi have been particularly adept at attracting pricing, but - as anyone who has waited to pay at a checkout in one of their stores has discovered - they are less good at saving their customers time.
In this respect, far more interesting initiatives are being pioneered by Albert Hein in Holland and now Sainsbury in the UK, both of which have dipped their toes into running cashless stores. Shoppers simply tap their loyalty card against a barcode on the shelf beneath each product they want, pop the item into their bag and walk out of the store without passing through any kind of checkout.
The Amazon Go stores in the US take this even further, by removing the need to scan, while, in China, Alibaba is exploring the concept of combining this kind of shopping with facial recognition.
As someone who does not particularly like shopping - and hates the choice between the long checkout queue at my local supermarket versus the error messages at the self-scan counters - I embrace the Amazon/Alibaba options. Until I pause to think about the payment that will be made for them in the form of disappearing jobs, and the data we’ll be handing over every time we need some groceries.
The challenge for the wine industry, however, is neither the cash nor the time issue - it's the angst, or the furrowed brows that are clearly visible in every drinks section of every supermarket across the globe. The discounters have worked to reduce angst by reducing the number of products from which customers have to choose. If the chain only offers one Chianti, for example, and the customer likes it on the first try, it then becomes simple for them to put another bottle into their trolley on their next visit.
Wine buffs who love browsing the wine aisles (and cannot conceive of the angst others struggle with there) find these limited ranges frustrating. They also tend to be disdainful of big, successful brands like Barefoot and Yellow Tail which ease consumers’ lives by delivering a consistent reliable product. As, too, to a slightly lesser extent, do Prosecco, Pinot Grigio and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. But for ordinary consumers, even the effort between distinguishing between one Pinot Grigio and another can produce angst.
Waitrose in the UK has acknowledged the issue by launching an exclusive range of wines with labels such as ’Smooth and Spicy’ and ‘Soft and Juicy’. Those same wine buffs will hate this kind of simplifcation too of course - while in many cases happily accepting similar signposting when they buy their tea or coffee.
The Waitrose concept, like the range of wines designated as Great With Pasta, Beef, Chicken or whatever, that Tesco launched some years ago, is a good initiative - but only at the lower end of the price scale. More premium wines will need more premium solutions.
One good option might be to reduce the angst by replacing it with other, more agreeable, emotions. This of course is what the best wine tourism efforts seek to achieve, but is far more rarely encountered on retailer shelves.
The Augmented Reality labels that Treasury introduced for its 19 Crimes brand and is now rolling out for all of its other wines may, however, be leading the way for others in the industry. They don’t seek to educate or inform; they’re all about fun. And when people are having fun, not only do they not feel any angst, they tend to be rather freer with those other components of shopper currency: time and money.