In an article published online by the Financial Times, Jonathan Birchall reported briefly that Amazon.com, “the world’s largest online retailer, is to start selling wine in the US, entering a business fraught with regulatory complexities and littered with the wreckage of previous failures.”
My initial reaction was not, shall we say, positive. Not that I have anything against Amazon—its Web site does a decent job of selling my latest book. I immediately felt sorry for local retailers and also for the novice consumer. Let me explain.
First the retailers: while Amazon does a good job selling books, and other consumer items, the large online retailer has also helped remove local book stores from the landscape. Now that may or may not be good for America, but I am certain it isn’t good for the families of bookstore owners, as sure as closing down a wine retail shop isn’t going to be good for those families.
Yet, neither I nor anyone else can deny that online shopping is upon us and it is likely to take over the way we do business.
I may remain the last holdout, as I have a genetic need to see, touch, feel, and talk to a real person when I buy something, and that leads me to my second concern: the novice consumer.
I always remember that look on a certain young person’s face, when returning to buy another bottle of that spectacular wine that earlier in the week I had to persuade him to try. It motivated me to run the retail wine shop.
In our Manhattan wine shop, my partner and I made a premeditated effort to assure that our staff talk to every person who came into the shop, to find out level of wine knowledge and taste preference. With that information, we embarked on making recommendations, and we always tried to make recommendations for products and brands that the customer had never heard of and had no information about. (We eschewed wines that received ratings from critics.)
That way, customers were exposed to more than good advertising or jaded critic ratings. Customers were exposed to wines that had the potential of meeting their expectations, because we got to know their palates.
We also ran a weekly wine tasting not only to introduce new products but to also talk with customers about what they like or dislike about the products—that way, we got to know more about their preferences.
I simply cannot figure out how Amazon or any online wine sales effort is going to do that.
It seems to me, the consumers who benefit most from online wine sales are those who have been consuming wine for years and know what they like, plus those who go out and taste wine and decide what they like and see if it is online. (I suppose those who don't care much but just want the cheapest wine they can find benefit too.)
What about novices? How is online buying going to help develop their palates?
I suppose novices can go to tastings and then see if Amazon sells the wines that they like, but something tells me that talk and personal connection creates more interested novices than cyber signals.
I also wonder about the mundane stuff like:
Will Amazon warehouse wines the way it warehouses books? I don’t like that possibility.
Will Amazon’s operation finally break down the three-tier system? I love that possibility.
Then again, will buying wine from Amazon mean that the company will service only states where shipping direct to consumers is allowed? That would be sad and it would maintain a disgusting and, in my view, unconstitutional situation.
Will Amazon make an effort to select wine not from what’s available in large volume, but from what’s out there in all its many styles and prices? That would be great.
Can Amazon devise an online wine tasting program? If so, that would be even greater.
Finally, the article claims that, “Amazon is looking to recruit a senior wine buyer, whom it says will be responsible for ‘the acquisition of a massive new product selection’ for its site.”
I hope whomever does the interviewing knows something about the wine world so that the so-called senior wine buyer actually is a wine person and not just another critic.
I hereby apply for the Amazon job, provided the company lets me do it from home. I wonder if anyone from Amazon reads wine blogs!
Copyright Thomas Pellechia, March 2008
All rights reserved.