Though the pandemic drove fear into the hearts of wine producers by triggering dramatic slowdowns in the hospitality and tourism industries, one speck of hope has remained the rise of wine e-commerce. In fact, because it can help consumers who are interested in wine but live far from any brick and mortar wine retailers gain quick access to a broader selection of wines, wine e-commerce has great potential to help growing wine markets grow even more rapidly.
In China where wine e-commerce is not heavily regulated, e-commerce players have played an ever more prominent role in the larger wine ecosystem, representing around 30% of pre-pandemic wine sales according to the IWSR. Compared to more developed markets like the US and Japan, where online wine sales remain between 5-10% of the market, this is substantial. Even though China’s overall wine market is predicted to remain below 2019 levels for the next five years, wine e-commerce is expected to grow as consumers have become used to more informal home wine consumption.
However, many markets throughout Asia still view wine e-commerce with caution. Countries that regulate and tax wine heavily also tend to restrict its sale online. Thailand is an exception, with importer/distributors also able to sell their products directly to consumers through websites and apps (although there are restrictions on direct advertising of alcohol). In India and Taiwan, however, selling wine online is illegal and despite some workarounds (like telephoning in credit card numbers or primitive versions of click and collect) it remains virtually impossible. Meanwhile, in South Korea selling wine online was legalised in April 2020 and pandemic-driven buying has driven both convenience stores’ and department stores’ wine sales through the roof, suggesting that there was latent desire for online wine purchasing, and not only in the mass market.
In fact, there are many misleading stereotypes about the types of wine being purchased online. When I was writing my research paper for the Master of Wine, which studied the online purchasing behaviours of young Chinese consumers, preliminary market interviews suggested that the wines being sold online were extremely cheap (RMB50 and below). However, in my actual study the respondents chose wines between RMB150-200 and stated that this was the most common price bracket for them. The price point of wines sold online in markets like Japan and Hong Kong may be even higher. Thus, it makes sense that businesses are willing to invest in building online infrastructure even in markets where sales volumes aren’t that high.
Something that does differ notably between markets is the demographics of online wine shoppers. In my research on China, it appeared that the average online wine shopper was slightly more likely to be female and relatively young (most likely in her twenties or early thirties). The relative inexperience of these consumers may explain why large brands have generally had an edge over the competition. However, over the course of the pandemic I learned from internet denizens like Lady Penguin that large brands are starting to suffer relative to more differentiated products and even non-wine products like fruit wine. The limited research I have seen about online wine shopping in Japan suggests that the demographic tends to be more heavily male, older and more experienced with wine, leading to more traditional products dominating online platforms.
Wine e-commerce has several potential advantages for both the industry and consumers, other than the convenience and accessibility already mentioned. One is the possibility of creating an interactive shopping experience and access to expertise that might not be available locally. The content marketing model, adopted by influencers like Lady Penguin (Karla Wang) in mainland China, who uses short educational videos to help her fans learn wine basics and feel comfortable making purchase decisions, has great potential.
Another is the possibility of using machine learning to generate better wine recommendations. To be fair, I have yet to see any algorithm truly work as well as a personalised recommendation from a friendly wine merchant, but it remains an enticing goal.
The final potential advantage of e-commerce is that it could allow small producers from overseas to connect directly with consumers in Asian markets without all the cost additions of middle men and all the carbon footprint of travel. The spate of online tastings I have seen between producers in Europe, Africa, North America and Australasia and consumers in Asia suggests to me that it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
If you’re new to online wine shopping, here are a few tips to maximise your chances of a good experience:
- The transparency of the internet makes it much harder to get away with outrageous prices, but it’s still worth checking a price comparison site like wine-searcher.com to make sure you’re getting a fair price.
- Big e-commerce platforms like T-mall or Taobao allow for easy price comparisons, but it’s very hard to know who the seller really is; even though their prices may be higher, I still recommend buying from a seller with their own website that has been around for at least 3-4 years.
- It’s best to buy as directly as you can to minimise the number of stops a wine makes before it reaches your door; in markets where this is allowed, try buying directly from wine importers.
- Even if a wine is stored perfectly, rough handling during last-mile delivery can ruin it (especially if you’re in a hot, tropical climate); if a website is offering free or very cheap delivery even on small quantities, it’s unlikely the wine is being handled properly.
- If you’re buying older or collectible wine, look for websites that give plenty of detail about the condition the wines are in; more reputable websites will let you know the fill level (the best is mid-neck, anything below top-shoulder isn’t great), whether a wine has any label damage and if it has the import label of another country e.g. a US import label means the wine went to the US before being re-exported to Asia.