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Why Chinese millennials buying wine online is a phenomenon ripe for research

South China Morning Post by Sarah Heller09/12/2016  

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It wasbound to come to an end eventually. Having spent years fantasising about the cloud of bliss life would be if only I could pass all my Master of Wine exams and “just” have the research paper left, I now find that peachy cloud slowly evaporating and myself settling into the rather less fantastical realisation that there’s still work to do.

This is not to say that I don’t find my topic really rather interesting – I more or less took all the sexy topics I could think of and jammed them into one research paper: “selling wine”, “to Chinese”, “millennials” “online” However, with a whole 500 survey responses I need to log before January 31, it begins to occur to me that I really ought to get cracking.

The research paper is the often glossed over third portion of the Master of Wine exam (technically, yes, it is an exam, even though, thankfully, I’m allowed to do it from the comfort of my home office/cocoon). When completed, it should be an original piece of research on a wine-related topic that expands the global wine community’s collective knowledge base.

While this used to necessitate the gathering of hard data, forcing many a would-be Master of Wine into an unfamiliar world of lab coats, pipettes and conical flasks, mercifully, as of a few years ago, the scope of inquiry has been greatly broadened so that now candidates can delve into subjects as diverse as history, literature and anthropology. Personally, I decided long ago that sticking to what I know (consumer research) was the best way to preserve my sanity this 2016-17 academic year.

My inquiry itself is fairly straightforward. The goal is to gauge which particular elements of a wine’s product page are more likely to get somebody to hit “buy now” and which are the digital equivalent of window dressing, i.e. nice to have, but hardly the determining factor. All those close-up shots of bottle punts and unwrinkled foil capsules you will see if you keep scrolling down on a Tmall product page leap to mind, but only the research will tell.

For the sake of nice, round numbers, I have decided that millennials are people aged 20 to 35. I have not limited my pool by geographic or socioeconomic factors, in the hope that we will get an attractively diverse group and be able to draw some conclusions about different categories of millennials (e.g. do 20 to 25 year olds in western China need dramatic visuals or if 30 to 35 year olds in the greater Beijing area abide by community scores). Given millennial internet users in China total around 418 million, surely I can tempt a measly 500 into giving me five minutes of their browsing time? Especially with incentives factored in (a painful, but inevitable part of market research in China, I have been assured again and again).

For those of you not particularly turned on by the topic, the reason why Chinese online wine consumers (millennials especially) are the height of research sex appeal is that they are arguably well ahead of their Western counterparts, at least in terms of the percentage of wine sales made online vs in person. While in the US – a market burdened by labyrinthine interstate alcohol shipping laws – online penetration of the wine market is a mere 3 to 4 per cent by volume, in China it is a whopping 30 per cent and predicted to grow steadily. Even in the relatively well networked UK it is only around 10 per cent.

Yet there are certainly headwinds. Anecdotally, many online wine orders are in the one-to-three-bottle range, but the expectation is that shipping will be totally free. The challenge with shipping small orders of wine around a vast country is that wine is heavy, temperature-sensitive and fragile. Once it arrives, it requires special storage, meaning most people avoid massive bulk buys. Meanwhile, trucking within China remains painfully costly.

However, things may be about to change. Cainiao logistics (owned by Alibaba, which also owns the Post) will use its parent company’s competitive edge against JD.com, the China wine

e-commerce leader. Amazon is also re-entering the Chinese online wine sales space, so my guess is that wine e-commerce will continue to tick along nicely – at least, I hope, until I’ve finished this research paper.

(Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer and the author of Diary of a Master of Wine Student)