Monday, January 13, 2020

In Defense of Big Box Retailers

For many years the standard-bearer wine retailer in my hometown market was a sprawling place that, as its name indicated, sold everything from lumber to feed to work boots and, yes, wine.  The selection was broad and deep, with thousands of bottles ranging from pedestrian to precious, and everything in between.  The staff was attentive and knowledgeable.  With selection and service aplenty, it was everything a wine lover could hope for.

Alas, it did not last forever, and they closed their doors for reasons having nothing to do with their wine department.  As a result, a multi-million dollar void was left in the market.  If some saw it as an opportunity, they did little to capitalize on it.  That was at the end of 2016.

Today, the local market can be broadly split between grocery stores and small independents, each with their own domains: Grocery stores, awash in homogeneity, while the independents – of which there are fewer every year – differentiate by offering more international selections and smaller producers. In between is a chasm that remains unfilled.

As wine offerings at grocery stores have grown in square footage, they have also narrowed in their diversity, the selection of which is often delegated to a (very) short list of vendors.  (That's right, their vendors decide what goes on the shelf.)  Consequently, I just don’t buy much wine at the grocery store.

But it’s also becoming harder to patronize smaller independents.  (This was also explained in my challenging search for affordable wines this summer.)  As they struggle to grab margins, average bottle prices at most has increased, and value picks have shrunk dramatically.  This was driven home on a recent trip to a place where I’m known by name and have shopped for over a decade.  When I asked for some everyday drinking recommendations, three were offered in response: a $24 rose, a $27 rosso, and a $20 white. 

Maybe I’m a cheap skate, but it felt to me like the store owner and I were speaking different languages.  At a minimum, our ideas of “everyday” price points are far apart, and the experience left me feeling somehow inadequate.

That visit also stands in sharp contrast to two others I had while wandering through large chain retailers in a different state.  Both stores were massive, with dozens of employees scurrying around helping customers.  Shelves were stocked with something for everyone, from all corners of the world, and at every price point; there were many thousands of bottles.  With so many people, they have specialists for just about everything,and they don't get paid on commission, so they’re just as happy to point you towards a good value as anything else.  One of the stores even had a tasting bar with hundreds of bottles of liquor available for try-before-you-buy tasting.  I was giddy.

As much as a champion as I am of small, local businesses, the experiences in these two big-box stores was head and shoulders above anything available in my home market.  It was like shopping on the internet, but better.  Way better.  The things that made for such quality experiences - selection, service, availability, etc. - are almost by definition impossible to achieve without reaching a certain scale. And the absence of pressure and judgement,well, that's just a bonus.

As the new year gets under way, it’s a good time to reflect on habits we’d like to change.  Where I get wine is a relatively inconsequential thing, but one that might yield a little less frustration and a little more discovery.  Besides, there are plenty of other ways to support local businesses.

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