When Benchmark Wine Group opened its digital doors in 2002, the internet was a different place. “People were still worried about putting their credit card details online, and licensers weren’t sure how online retail worked,” says CEO Dave Parker, who recalls confused licensers attempting to restrict online opening hours.
This is hard to imagine today. According to the US Department of Commerce, online shopping in the United States now represents over 15% of all retail sales, reaching $277.6 billion in the second quarter of 2023. In other markets, it’s even more important: In the UK, the figure has reached around 30%. Estimates for China are similar.
Wine and e-commerce are a perfect match
Wine has played its part in this story. As a complex product with a long tail of SKUs, it benefits from a retail environment that is easily searchable, and where product information is accessible.
“Its large variety is well-suited to a wide digital shelf,” says Guy Wolfe, Senior Insights Manager of e-commerce & Status Spirits at IWSR. For this reason, it was well established online by the time the pandemic hit, or, as Wolfe puts it, “further along the maturity curve than other [beverage alcohol] categories.”
As has been well reported, wine boomed online as Covid hit. According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, global wine e-commerce increased 50% by value from 2019 to 2020, vastly outpacing the total wine market, which shrank by 4% over the same period. Wine e-commerce in the US saw even greater gains—up 64%.
This was partly driven by an increase in e-commerce stores, as wineries and brick and mortar retailers hurried to offer products online. Some established players benefitted even more as in-person gatherings halted. SommSelect, an online wine shop and wine subscription company, saw a 400% jump in sales in 2020. Industry giant wine.com grew by 64%, in line with US market growth, then jumped a further 115% in 2021.
More recently, there have been concerns that the bubble has burst. After some heady years, the global value of wine e-commerce dropped by 3% from 2021 to 2022 according to the IWSR. In an article published in August 2023, it referred to a “post-pandemic plateau” for wine e-commerce, which, it predicts, will lose market share to beer, cider and RTDs over the coming years.
The pandemic wine bubble is over
Some of the larger online players have felt the effects of in-person re-openings. Wine.com did not share results for 2022, but a Market Watch article published in December 2022 projected total sales of $250m for the company. This would be an impressive gain on pre-pandemic years — it sold $150m in 2019 — but a 24% drop from the pandemic boom. In 2020, sales stood at $329m.
“There are a lot more online retailers now. During the pandemic you had to figure out how to deliver to survive, so an awful lot more of the brick-and-mortar stores got into online retail,” says Parker.
David Lynch, Editorial Director of SommSelect, agrees: “Our matrix of competitors has grown. It’s really crowded now,” he says.
With overall sales levelling off, and competition growing, successful retailers are considering how to stand out. “We had a crazy black swan positive,” says Parker. “It wasn’t going to last, so you have to be prepared for the next market, which is now.”
For Benchmark, this involved opening a physical location in Washington DC, where customers can collect products and meet staff. It also expanded into rare spirits, and grew its team into new states, such as Florida, Texas and Virginia.
It also means simply getting the nuts and bolts right. “Operations and customer service are the secret sauce,” says Lynch, who is well known for writing detailed articles about wines for the company’s daily offers. “My write-ups mean nothing if we don’t have a robust customer service component,” he says.
He cites two operational developments that have been impactful. Build a Case allows customers to delay shipping until they’ve purchased up a full case of wine, at which point it can be shipped for free. This is particularly useful for buyers of daily offers. Another is summer shipping, where delivery is delayed until the autumn for residents of warm southern states. These are both examples of initiatives that respond to very practical customer needs. “Operations and customer service have seen all the investment in the past few years,” says Lynch.
The customer is the centre of everything
Pragmatism and customer-centricity is also needed in digital marketing. “Many wine brands don’t have resources for an in-house marketer with digital experience,” says Polly Hammond, Founder and CEO of 5forests, a digital marketing agency servicing the wine industry. In many cases, businesses — especially small independents — are trying to do their own web design, with limited success. “They are doing the things that they like, but they aren’t doing the things that will make for a good customer experience that will convert someone,” says Hammond.
“Good digital marketing is a reflection of your documented goals for the brand,” she goes on, adding that these goals don’t have to be financial: “Perhaps you want to be the most well-known Bordeaux brand in New York. All of your digital choices should be supporting that strategy.”
This includes leveraging analytics, customer relationship management (CRM), email, and content marketing, while not wasting time on activities that won’t add value. “People are too attracted to shiny new tools,” says Hammond. She adds that any digital strategy should now include accessibility, which means making sure that most people can read the digital assets, regardless of whether they have visual problems or other issues. Privacy is also important, as is sustainability, which means not consuming more electricity than necessary. A simple measure like ditching very large files can go a long way to reducing energy use.
And if you get it right, more customers might just be willing to use their credit card online when it comes to buying wine.