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Who Moved My Wine?

May 14th, 2019 by Jon Stein

Filed under: Skolnik Newsletter, Wine

Writing in the “Wine Economist”, Mike Veseth discusses the varying approaches to selling wine in a retail environment. Mike asks: “What’s the best way to organize supermarket products to facilitate consumer purchases?” He goes on to observe that “Over in the canned vegetable aisle, the system is pretty simple. All the canned green beans there. All the canned corn here. Easy to find what you want. Easy to compare. Over in the breakfast cereal aisle an entirely different geography applies. The corn flakes are found here, there, and elsewhere, not all in one spot. That’s because most of the products are organized by producer. All the Post cereals here, all the Chex products over there”.

I travel a lot, and am struck by how much variety there is in how wine stores and supermarkets display their wines. Even my favorite hometown supermarket often moves an entire section, for no apparent reason, prompting my exasperation: who moved my wine? Mike has some interesting thoughts: “I have been trying to figure out what works best for wine for quite some time, but I am still a bit stumped. The wine wall, the name I have given to the space where wines are put on display, probably has the greatest number of SKUs of any single section of an upscale grocery store. You will find 1000-2000 in many stores today and the big box alcohol superstores like Total Wine have about 5000 wine choices at any given time.”

In a book that Mike wrote in 2011, “Wine Wars”, he makes the following observation about “wine walls”: “The domestic wines are often arranged like the canned veg aisle — all the Zinfandel here, all the Pinot Noir there. Imports are mapped like the United Nations. France, Italy, Germany, and so on. Sometimes groups of countries get lumped together (Spain + Portugal, Chile + Argentina). I have seen the entire southern hemisphere reduced to a couple of shelves. There is often a sort of Siberia over in the corner for “other” wines, sweet, fortified, alcohol-free, kosher, organic, and so on. Sparkling wines from wherever are all collected together in one place, something that is often true of Rosé wines, too. Alternative packaging rates its own section with box wine and now also canned wines holding forth. You will also find smaller wine displays here and there in the store — near the cheese, meat, fish, and deli counters, for example. Wine, wine, everywhere. Organized chaos!”

And maybe it is no surprise either that some of the stores that sell the most wine are the ones that keep it simple like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Costco, which sells more wine than any other U.S. retailer, intentionally limits the number of wines available at any moment, changes stock frequently, keeps prices low, and uses a very simple system. There are more expensive wines and less expensive wines. There are red, white, pink, and sparkling wines. It’s the Rolling Stones system, really. You can’t always get what you want at Costco, in terms of a particular wine, but you can usually get what you need. The wine flies out the door.”

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