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Carol Emmas: How much data do we really need?

Published:  23 May, 2013

There is currently no bigger craze - number-crunching is everywhere; on the football pitch, in the X Factors and Strictlys of this world and we now even eat and drink by it.

There is currently no bigger craze - number-crunching is everywhere; on the football pitch, in the X Factors and Strictlys of this world and we now even eat and drink by it.

There were two interesting statistical industry briefings at Monday's London International Wine Fair, both with very different angles on consumer buying habits, but both begging the question of how much we should actually take statistical analysis on board?

In "State of the nation and its impact on consumer behaviour", Nielsen client business partner Helen Stares said as part of her presentation that the growth of supermarket-led convenience stores such as Sainsbury's Local and Tesco Express have seen a 4.3% increase in year-on-year sales and are now accounting for 23% of their sales.

Figures show 50% of consumers now visit a convenience outlet once a week as they move increasingly towards "little and often" shopping habits (Nielsen, to April 27, 2013). On the back of such figures Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Marks & Spencer are all currently publishing plans to open more local stores. Stares gave a sharp presentation with an objective overview. Yet, such figures can only make the independent wine merchant jittery as convenience stores move more into their patch than even the supermarkets have. It means the threat of more people being increasingly tempted to throw that easy purchase of wine into their basket, making it increasingly tougher for those trying to carve a living from an alternative slant.

These figures, of course, do ring true. We all say we want the independent wine merchant on the high street, yet in reality statistics keep telling us otherwise. Years ago when I worked in Oddbins people loved the thought of the shop being there - but we all know what "thought" did. When it was announced it was closing there was such a sad outcry. However, oddly enough a lot of that outcry came from those that had never set foot inside the shop. Yes, they may have loved it being there as something quaint to look at, but not necessarily to engage with beyond a mere fleeting resolution that one day they "really must go in" - but for now they'd just stick that extra convenient bottle in the basket while they just happen to be in the supermarket.

Yet, if we all gave in to taking notice of such statistics, really where would we be? No one would ever open a high street independent wine merchant, and as a consequence consumer choice would shrivel to nothing and our world would begin to become a much blander place. Yes, retail is currently tough, but there are also those that are making it work successfully because they are hard grafting, single-minded innovators who are good at getting people through their doors because they believe in what they do through gut instinct and not via a number-crunched graph.

The wine industry is failing to keep up...

From a different angle, Jonny Forsyth, drinks analyst of Mintel, said in his briefing: How is wine adapting to the changing consumer? As consumers in the US are developing a much sweeter tooth, so are we. Did you know that in 1820 we each consumed 20lbs of sugar per year now it's 130lbs and sugar consumption in the UK has risen by 31% since 1990 alone? Gross? Yes. And it doesn't look like it's going to go away. If anything our sugar load will continue to increase until people begin to shout about it (even our fruit and veg is now being grown to taste much sweeter).

But is the move towards more sugar being forced down our throats, or is it something we really want in the drinks industry? I know personally don't want to taste more sugar-laden wines, but according to Mintel statistics, as a nation we do. In the US drinks market Moscato sales have seen a 33% jump in volume, with sales of sweet reds also doing well. In the UK rosé has jumped to a 11% high from just 1% a decade ago, which Forsyth puts partly down to the residual sugar content.

In his briefing he said sweeter-styled wines appeal to the younger palate. However, with less of an objective statistical overview than Stares, he added our wine industry is being "slow" in dealing with the changes and unlike other industries is failing to keep up. Forsyth argued: "There's an industry view that drier wines are superior, yet such a narrow approach will alienate a great swathe of the population." He said it's actually the spirit producers that have lead the way in evolving sweeter drinks with the likes of Smirnoff's flavoured vodkas and Jack Daniel's honeyed whiskey, which have proved popular with younger consumers. His objective was undoubtedly "sweeter" is the way to go and if you snooze, you lose.

Data analysis is definitely proving to be the big trend of the moment and, in black and white terms, is an incredibly useful tool in showing us what the mass index of people really want. However, it can also make quite depressing reading for those who are taking the opposite view and who must feel like they are swimming against a tsunami of opinion as such figures become more prevalent in the industry. It would be a much sadder place if that small element began fully taking note what stats actually said, so really it's hats off to those innovators that want to continue to fight the good fight for choice and who choose not to be part of the herd. As much as such figures might give an overall take on our food and drinks industry, and show where big and easy profits can be made, long may people also continue to stick to what they believe in and take such analysis with a good pinch of salt.

See Carol Emmas' blog here.