Are we ready to be ordinary?

17 October, 2008

Watching yet more mind-boggling numbers flash across my television screen last night, courtesy of the latest instalment of the soap opera known as the global financial crisis, it occurred to me again that the world has changed fundamentally - and therefore the trends we have taken for granted over the past decade are not necessarily going to survive.

In my last column I argued that the world's growing love affair with wine will continue, and I still see no reason to doubt that view.

What I think will change more rapidly is the relative demand levels, and therefore relative importance, of consumption countries, to producer countries. The UK, having been top dog in terms of wine imports for so long, is slipping down the importance scale

and I fear it will never again regain its previous position.

The causes are many and well known. On the consumption side, volume growth in the UK is slowing, price growth has been marginal

and, if you take inflation and duty increases into account, we've actually been destroying value in wine for the past 10 years.

Increasingly unrealistic margin and promotional support demands from supermarkets are discouraging all but the strongest brands (who can still resist the more extreme terms of trade) or the most desperate or foolhardy (who can't). And the consolidation of retail channels has greatly reduced the alternative routes to market for producers who think they should be getting a better deal.

The change in mood is palpable. Some of our team were recently in South Africa for Cape Wine and associated client meetings, and they came back with stories of companies turning their back on the UK and focusing instead on newer and more profitable opportunities - such as Russia, Asia and even sub-Saharan Africa.

When I was in Australia in August, I had extensive conversations with leading producers about wine export opportunities where the UK wasn't even mentioned. It's as if we are dropping off the radar.

Of course, some of this is down to frustration about lack of success in the UK, or in some cases sales success without any profitability attached. But really, who can blame them? If you're working hard for no reward, then why do it?

There are wine companies that are doing well in the UK, but I would argue their success has come from more intrinsic factors - a great quality product, a good business plan

and hard-headed intelligence management - rather than the market conditions. And if market conditions become significantly better elsewhere, the investment and industry talent currently focused on the UK will migrate, never to return.

So how do we in the UK adjust to a future where the world isn't beating a path to our door to sell us their best?

Well, for one thing, we need to resist this trend - and not just because we in the UK wine trade like to think of our island as the centre of the wine universe. While the mood in the southern hemisphere is mutinous, there is a grudging acknowledgement that - for the moment at least - the UK still represents the best platform to introduce and propagate new trends in wine.

For many years buyers and distributors in the Nordic countries, eastern Europe and Russia have believed that what works in the UK today will also work in their countries in a few years' time. They often hire us at Wine Intelligence to help them understand both their own markets and

the UK's. And while it isn't a perfect theory, there is some evidence to suggest that products which find a good market here tend to do well in other export markets.

But hang on. What value is our "influencer" status to us in the UK? The problem we have is that the benefit is quite difficult to quantify - good overseas attendance at the London Wine Fair perhaps, but what else? I happen to believe that there is a benefit, but at an industry-wide level. The fact is that producers around the world, for all their grumpiness about how painful it is to do business in the UK, continue to do so because the UK still represents a shop window for wine to the rest of the world. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, to paraphrase Sinatra.

What happens if and when this feeling goes away? I worry that the edifice of the UK wine trade, which was built on the back of a 30 -year revolution in wine volumes, will begin to show nasty cracks as sales momentum subsides but unattractive commercial terms remain in place. Good producers who could just about stomach the unprofitability for a shot at making an impression in the market and enticing the interest of, say, the Swedish monopoly

or Danish supermarkets, may pile all their resources into the Nordics and ignore the UK entirely.

The net of this reversal of trend will leave our market less interesting, and progressively less of an influencer in the future. I don't really want to talk about finance (there's quite enough of that about already), but the analogy of a loss of confidence in a bank, prompting a "run" on its deposits, is useful . If we in the UK choose to ignore the signs that we are not the only interesting wine market any more, the intellectual and social capital of our industry will make for the exit faster than you can say "bank rescue".

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