Richard Hemming MW: the challenge of niche interests

According to most observers, veganism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world of food and drink. As such, there are plenty of producers, brands and retailers across the board lining up to take advantage, because where new trends emerge, there is money to be made.

Wine retailers should be equally ready to cater to vegan wine drinkers, despite the fact that they represent a tiny fraction of customers overall, and even though it raises a broader question about the challenges of merchandising.

But first, a bit of revision. Certain animal products can be used in the production process of wine, principally in the fining and stabilisation stages. Isinglass (from fish) and gelatin (from cows) are unacceptable to both vegetarians and vegans; while casein (from milk) or albumin (from egg white) would be acceptable to vegetarians but not vegans. A common alternative is bentonite, a type of clay that is acceptable to all.

In case you’re wondering, yeast is classified as a type of fungi, which causes no problems to any dietary requirement, as far as I can tell – while I’m afraid we will just have to ignore the rodents and insects that routinely fall into winery crushers in every vintage.

Now that vegetarian and vegan wines can be defined, it’s surely worthwhile for wine retailers to identify them in store. The question is how.

Merchandising such bottles in a completely separate section might be of maximum convenience to vegetarian and vegan consumers, but it is hardly practical for other consumers, for whom categorisation by county or region of origin or style – light whites, full reds etc – are the most useful systems. Having to go between the vegetarian and non-vegetarian sections would be hugely inconvenient.

Besides, if vegan wines are to be segregated, then so should all the other niches – organic, biodynamic, orange, natural, and so on. Then you might have additional sections for bin-ends, monthly promotions, new arrivals, back vintages, low- and no-alcohol wines –another up-and-coming sub-genre – and any number of other categories. It would soon get very complicated.

Alternatively, you could group wines together in broad categories such as origin or style and then additionally identify individual wines that are, for example, vegan by using neck tags, shelf talkers, and other POS tools. Providing too much information, however, creates an  overcrowded message, making it too confusing for your customers to make a decision.

This, of course, is where online retail has a clear advantage. A well-designed website can filter products by any combination of criteria to produce a specific, targeted set of results.

In both cases, the key requirement is clear navigation, a perennial problem for the wine world, which is a complicated product by its very nature. 

While it may not be possible to please everyone, it’s always worth periodically auditing how your stock is presented, both online and in store, by asking the basic questions: who are your customers, and what are their priorities?

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