Learning from the Dark Side – learning from off-trade

Drinks: Drinks
Other: Business

Customers act totally differently in the high street than they do in the on-trade.
But is that because they want to, or because restaurants force them to do so?  
David Williams fires up his lightsaber and prepares to think the unthinkable

Imagine, if you will, a parallel world where restaurants have fallen into the hands of the supermarkets. The new owners have sacked the sommeliers, bringing in a single central buyer with a brief to apply the systematic rigour and hard-nosed commercialism of ‘proper retail’. As a result wine lists have been totally transformed.

Those lovingly compiled, leather-bound compendiums of European small-producer esoterica have been ‘rationalised’, replaced by ‘focused’ lists of mass-market brands and ‘restaurant own labels’ with a bias towards the New World, punctuated with garish gatefold sleeves announcing money-saving offers if you buy three glasses of Pinotage rosé. When the time comes to order, the customer is directed to the wall of wine at the back of the restaurant, selects the bottle, and opens it himself.

For most sommeliers, this (admittedly rather caricatured) description is a vision of a restaurant from hell, the very opposite of everything they stand for. Who, they might ask, would want to work in an environment like that? Where’s the fun, the human interaction, the diversity?

Thankfully, those same sommeliers will say, they’ll never have to. A restaurant like the one described above could only ever have limited appeal since the on-trade is an entirely different environment from the off-trade; where customers behave in an entirely different way.

But how justified is that line of argument, which comes close to an article of faith for most sommeliers? While it’s undeniably true that there are enormous and measurable differences in consumer behaviour between the two sectors – taken as a group, on-trade customers really do buy different wines of different origins and at higher prices than their off-trade equivalents, and they rarely engage in price promotions – the question the average supermarket buyer might come back with is: why?

‘the stress of choosing wine in a restaurant leads to caution’ gerard Basset MW OBE

Is it because they want to behave differently, or because they are forced to behave differently? If restaurants, in other words, were to get a little bit more ‘off-trade’ in their approach to buying and selling wine, can we really be sure that both they and their customers wouldn’t be better off?


This certainly seems to be the conclusion that emerges from a study of consumer behaviour in the on-trade published last year by the wine industry market research firm, Wine Intelligence. The study, which was based on a survey of 1,000 regular wine drinkers, suggests that the single defining difference between the on- and off-trades is the level of fear experienced by consumers.

Put simply, the study suggests, your average customer is scared by the process of buying wine in restaurants in ways that they never are in a supermarket, with the public nature of the experience, the level of financial risk, and the perceived time pressure all playing a contributory part.

This fear was also identified by Gérard Basset MW OBE, owner of Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest, when he was researching his Wine MBA dissertation on the psychology of the wine list a few years ago. And, for Basset at least, it has a dispiriting effect. 

‘My feelings are that the inherent stress of choosing wine in a restaurant leads to consumer caution – they often want to play it safe and avoid embarrassment,’ Basset says. ‘A retail purchase is more relaxed and consumers don’t feel pressurised into making a quick decision.’ 

The restaurant setting creates an innate conservatism in its customers; like nervous politicians, they are terrified of the gaffe. It leads to situations like the one reported to Imbibe by a sommelier in Bristol, who preferred to stay off the record, but said he hadn’t sold one bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet in the past year because most customers are afraid of looking stupid trying to say a name they can’t pronounce.

the end consumer in the on-trade and off-trade is often the same person

As that example shows, however, it’s not just the setting that makes customers fretful in the on-trade, but the offer, too – a point that also emerged from the Wine Intelligence study. The research suggested that most on-trade consumers would be more comfortable if they were able to find familiar off-trade names on restaurant wine lists: nine out of 10 of those surveyed said they would ‘not be turned off by seeing a recognisable supermarket wine brand’, while 55% said they ‘feel more positive about the wine offer if it has well-known brands in it’.

As Lulie Halstead, CEO of Wine Intelligence, said in a release accompanying the study: ‘Many pubs and restaurants still see branded wine as taboo, yet our research shows that consumers see things quite differently. In fact, the presence of wine brands in a casual on-trade setting can often provide reassurance and a helpful point of reference for many drinkers – just as they do in beer, spirits, soft drinks and champagne.’


That Halstead refers to the ‘casual’ on-trade is important here: she’s not claiming that Blossom Hill has a place on the wine list chez Joël Robuchon any more than she would claim Dairylea has a place on the cheese board. What the study does suggest, however, is a disconnection: a gap between what customers say they want in the on-trade (at all price levels) and what they’re actually getting.

This would seem to be particularly apparent when it comes to the continued dominance of the Old World, and the New World’s relative lack of penetration, in the vast majority of restaurant lists. Indeed, if you look at today’s Nielsen sales stats for the on-trade they look remarkably like off-trade sales stats from 15 years ago, before France was eclipsed by Australia.

Tesco wine buyer Graham Nash is more sympathetic about the difference in ranges between the two sectors than might be expected from a retailer that has done more than any other to shape the rise of the New World in the UK.

‘There is a well-established tradition in the on-trade for food to be matched with wines from the Old World,’ Nash says. ‘It is ingrained in the UK consumer consciousness that countries such as France, Spain and Italy, with a traditional food and wine culture, produce wines that are the perfect partners for restaurant fare.’

But Nash insists that the wine range of any outlet, regardless of sector, ‘comes down to individual establishments and their customer needs. What I want to see on any on-trade list is a balanced offering, which would include some New World – an Italian restaurant with just Italian wines on its list, for example, is a very narrow approach.’

Nash believes the situation is ‘slowly changing’, with the on-trade gradually catching-up with the off-trade. But according to one sales account manager at a London-based merchant, the pace of change is glacial, particularly at higher price points. ‘It’s very difficult for us to sell any New World wines over the price of £7-£8 to restaurants now, but the “safer”, well-known appellations/DOCs in the Old World, like Chianti Classico, Barolo, Bordeaux and Rioja are still selling well,’ he says.

This raises a chicken-and-egg question: who decides that those Old World staples are ‘safe’? Is it the customers, many of whom would never drink those wines at home, or is it that sommeliers are more comfortable selling the same wines they always have done?

Much the same can be said of another element of off-trade buying behaviour that is conspicuous by its absence in the on-trade: price promotions. Judging by the relative paucity of restaurant wine promotions, most sommeliers clearly agree with wine consultant Peter McCombie MW that ‘on-trade consumers are less influenced by promotions based merely on price cutting’.

Once again, the question remains: is that because they don’t want them, or because they rarely get a chance to engage in them?

The success – in terms of publicity at least – of isolated promotions such as the D&D group’s Love Wine promotion last year, which included large discounts on wines such as 1985 Haut-Brion and 2002 Dom Pérignon, would suggest the latter. And it seems unlikely that a nation of consumers who are hooked on the deal – from Groupon vouchers to three-for-a-tenner Merlot – would undergo a total psychological makeover the moment they enter a restaurant.


McCombie, however, thinks otherwise. You get the impression that he views the on-trade at its best as an oasis for wine consumers – a place where they are free from the baser instincts of supermarkets, and where they are obliged to be less price sensitive. He talks approvingly of how a staunch Aussie Shiraz drinker will be forced out of their comfort zone in an Italian restaurant with an all-Italian wine list, and says that ‘ultimately, the consumer is less conservative in an on-trade situation, especially if there is someone available to talk them through the options.’

Shana Dilworth, ex-head sommelier at the Orrery, agrees. ‘There is always a greater chance to upsell the guest into a more expensive bottle of wine when they are dining out, as the circumstances vary greatly from just dining at home – birthdays, weddings…’ she says.

Clearly, there are different expectations when it comes to buying wine in a restaurant and a supermarket. But the differences shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the end consumer is often the same person. And much as many sommeliers would like to believe otherwise, when it comes to understanding that person, there may be a lot they could learn from the dark side.

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