Chinese consumers change their wine habits

When the on trade shuttered, observers expected Chinese wine consumption to drop. A new report reveals that the lockdown may instead have brought a whole new group to wine. 

Shanghai/Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash
Shanghai/Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

The pandemic has inspired more Chinese consumers to not only drink more wine, but spend more on it, according to a recent report from Wine Intelligence.

Online wine retailers around the world have seen sales skyrocket as home-bound consumers have kept up their wine drinking; however, they are mostly reporting that consumers are trading down in value. In China, on the other hand, not only has buying frequency increased, but so has the amount spent per bottle.

The research was based on polling a representative sample of 1,000 Chinese resident wine drinkers across 12 major cities and centres during March and April – and the results came as a surprise to the Wine Intelligence team.

“Our hypothesis going into the survey was that the severe restrictions put in place by the Chinese government to combat the spread of coronavirus were going to have a negative effect on the wine category,” Richard Halstead, COO of Wine Intelligence, wrote to Meininger’s. He said Wine Intelligence assumed that the shuttering of the on trade would mean a fall in wine consumption, as “traditionally, the on-premise was a key channel for wine consumption”.

What happened instead is that in-home consumption rose significantly, and “created some new occasions for consumption such as catching up with friends online and having a glass of wine either in the afternoon or last thing at night,” he went on. 

Indeed, the Wine Intelligence survey found that a whopping 57% of respondents said they drank wine while catching up with friends online, with a third saying this happened twice or more per week.

Halstead said the leaders of the online wine trend were those who were already into wine and speculates that “this group have encouraged their less wine-involved peers to try these new occasions of consumption and increase the incidence of wine purchase for home consumption.”

As elsewhere, the companies to benefit have been the digital ones. “The online retail channel appears to have taken the lion’s share of these new purchases, with over half of respondents saying they have bought wine via an online retailer more often during this period,” said the report. This is despite the fact that wine drinking has traditionally been associated with social occasions in bars and restaurants.

“The big catalyst in this trend must be the online retail channel, which was already quite dominant in China,” said Halstead. “If the decision to buy wine is an easy interaction on WeChat and delivery happens quite quickly and efficiently, and the cost is reasonable, it is quite frictionless.” 

The question now is whether these new spending behaviours will persist post-lockdown or not. Halstead replies honestly that the answer is “wait and see”.

“We asked respondents for their priorities post-virus and it seems that living well and indulging in luxuries (including better wine) were more of a priority than big social events or foreign holidays,” he said.

Of course, what consumers claim they will do and what they actually do when faced with the choice can be two separate things. Halstead says it depends on whether people have engaged in these behaviours for long enough for them to become habits.

The overall picture, however, suggests that wine in China has emerged unscathed, if not stronger than ever, after the pandemic.

Felicity Carter




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