Magical Mystery Box: Emerging China Wine Market Strategy

The Chinese economy is booming, recovering from the pandemic sooner and stronger than any other country, although the pace of recovery seems to have slowed. The wine economy in China is still struggling, however, with high inventory levels remaining due to last year’s lockdowns. Selling off the surplus stock without eroding price points and reputations is serious concern. Recently reports highlight creative solutions to the problem.

Doubling Down on China

Concha y Toro, the famous Chilean wine brand, is doubling down on its success in China according to The Drinks Business. CyT is strengthening its already strong presence in China by investing in its Shanghai operations, now part of its network of global offices, and taking advantage of Australia’s current crisis. China has imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine, creating space for upmarket wines from Chile, which continues to have good relations with the Chinese government.

Concha y Toro is launching two upmarket brands in China, which may well appeal to buyers of super-premium Penfolds products, for example, who are put off the the new 200+% tariffs. What do you think of the label designs?  The Cellar Edition wines feature a shell (concha in Spanish) framing a bull (toro). Direct and memorable, don’t you think? It should become the global logo for the brand in my opinion.

The Master Edition label is a playful nod to Boticelli’s “Venus on the half-shell,” as we used to call the famous “Birth of Venus” painting in art history class, paired  with a Greek mythology minotaur (half bull, half man). Half-shell, half-bull, not half bad!

Meanwhile, Accolade, the big Aussie producer currently owned by private equity investor The Carlyle Group, is pivoting in response to Chinese tariffs on Australian wine. It will focus on non-Australian wines, including some from Chile, to keep its Chinese pipeline as full as possible.

Exploiting Opportunities

A recent China wine market report by Rabobank analyst Stacie Wan titled “Staying Alive in the Chinese Market” reveals three unusual strategies that distributors and retailers are using to cope with current problems. Distribution systems work best when pipelines are full of product, but with wine sales down, inefficiencies are exposed. So some distributors are adding non-wine products such as sauce aroma baijiu to their portfolios, to build critical mass and keep their networks busy.

Community group buying is a rising trend in China. Groups of consumers band together to purchase larger quantities of various products and gain better terms. Communal buying in bulk is apparently especially popular in lower-tier cities. Several important wine producers, both domestic (ChangYu) and import (Yellow Tail) are taking advantage of these opportunities, especially with their lower-priced brands.

Some wine companies are exploring opportunities to develop special low price products specifically for community group sales — much as some clothing producers make special products for off-price and outlet retailers. Interesting!

Magical Mystery Box

A final strategy cited in the Rabobank report involves “mystery box” sales. Consumers are offered mixed cases of unidentified wines at bargain prices. Buyers get wine, good prices, and a (hopefully) pleasant surprise. The mystery box idea struck a note for me because we purchased a mystery box from a well-known producer a few months ago and were delighted. There was a mix of wines we knew, private label wines we hadn’t seen before, and several limited-production wine club or tasting room only wines. Some of the wines were really terrific and none were losers. We were happy overall and recently purchased again when the limited-time opportunity re-appeared.

The Rabobank report notes that mystery boxes appeal to adventurous consumers, but the main point is how useful they can be for retailers and distributors. They are a good way to clear out excess inventory without dumping wines in traditional market channels. Consumers know that they are getting a lower price for the case they buy, but since price isn’t broken down by bottles, the integrity of any particular price point is not seriously undermined.

One limitation of the mystery box strategy is that it can backfire if you offer the boxes constantly. As Rabobank notes

Furthermore, this is not the most effective strategy for building long-term consumer brand loyalty. As a result, most players currently prefer to promote their mystery box wines as limited editions, rather than as quarterly or annual subscriptions. After all, a constant surprise ceases to be a surprise.

Will mystery box become an important part of the wine market? Too soon to tell, but rising internet sales make this sort of niche strategy feasible. It is one indication of the innovation taking place in China as players deal with adverse market conditions.

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