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Who Buys Wine Online?

A new study finds that hard-core wine fans are making the most online purchases—and they're older than you think

Liz Thach
Posted: November 5, 2014

Online wine sales have been increasing in the United States at double-digit rates for the past five years. But that doesn't mean they're a major part of the industry yet. More than 80 percent of wine is sold in grocery stores, wine shops and other brick-and-mortar outlets, according to Nielsen. “Wine remains under-penetrated online at less than 2 percent of all U.S. wines sales," said Michael Osborne, founder and vice president for merchandising at Wine.com. "Online categories such as shoes and apparel have greater adoption, despite the obvious concern of fit and style.”

Online sales allow retailers and wineries that sell direct to reach a much larger audience. It's a very attractive possibility. But if they want to expand sales, they need to know who's buying wine online—and who's not and why. A new study by researchers at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo sheds some light on these online wine consumers.

Based on a survey of consumers, researchers discovered that online wine buyers are more likely to be male, over the age of 40, married with children and have a higher household income. They also tend to be wine connoisseurs or enthusiasts and spend more on wine than non-online buyers. (An e-mail survey was sent to 3,000 wine purchasers with a 31 percent response rate; 23 percent of respondents had purchased wine online.)

When these consumers buy wine online they are generally seeking higher quality wines from recognized appellations and have a preference for family-owned or small wineries. They are also quite tech savvy and are more likely to use phone apps or tablets to research wine information. But these online wine consumers do not use Facebook, Twitter or blogs any more than non-online wine consumers.

One reason for the slow growth in U.S. online wine sales is the complicated tangle of shipping regulations that differ state by state. In the U.K., for example, where shipping rules are more uniform, online wine sales are currently at 15 percent. Surveyed U.S. wine buyers also cited other concerns such as high shipping rates, online security worries and logistical issues such as signature requirements and temperature during shipping.

Surprisingly, Millennial consumers of legal drinking age currently purchase very little wine online, even though they grew up with the Internet. The researchers discovered the main reasons were that Millennials think shipping costs are too high and would prefer not to wait for a wine shipment. Also, they like to buy wine that they have an “experiential connection with," wrote the authors, a wine they've tasted in the past or one recommended by someone they know.

“Millennials enjoy the experience of physically choosing the wine and reading the labels in the retail outlet,” said Dr. Marianne McGarry Wolf, head of the Wine & Viticulture department at Cal Poly and a study author.

Though online wine sales currently constitute a small percentage of sales, most experts agree that the channel will continue to grow, especially with Amazon entering the arena in 2012 and large wine retailers such as Total Wine and BevMo expanding their web presence.

“We believe that it is important to share with the wine industry that the online purchaser spends more on wine and is an engaged higher income married male that enjoys talking about wine and uses both print and technology for wine information," said Dr. Wolf. "Further engagement with online purchasers will likely lead to additional purchases.”

What's less clear, however, is how wineries and retailers can broaden their appeal to a larger group of online customers.

Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  November 5, 2014 4:56pm ET
As I mentioned in another area, the price of wine is the determing cause to order wine through the internet. As you get older, the thrill of drinking a $100+ bottle of wine diminishes. It makes more sense to buy a stock for our retirement. For wineries and dealers to sell more wine on the internet, they must do at areasonable cost.
I order wine over the internet frequently and for the most part have been pleased with the wines. These flash sales sites know that their clients do not get a chance to taste the wine, so tend to offer good wines. Most of the wines that I see offered are made by well-known wine makers and probably are second wines with a different label. Many of these wines are rated by RP and other known tasters. Google is a good area to check out the wines. Shipping costs are usually covered by buying 4+ bottles.The wine arrives within 3-5 days with some of the companies shipping the wine in temperature controlled trucks. In Alabama wine should be shipped to the local ABC store so the state can collect their $.30/ bottle tax.
Finally, the flash sales are a very good source for highly rated foreign wines at a very reasonable price.

John I Hanbury
Virginia —  November 5, 2014 7:45pm ET
The survey describes me to a tee. I purchase virtually all of my wine online for several reasons. First, small town wine stores and grocery stores carry little else but plonk. Even in larger cities, it can be difficult to find a store carrying anything other than the usual suspects. Few stores are willing to risk carrying anything out of the ordinary.

Second, even with shipping it is usually cheaper to buy wine online. And it is delivered right to my door!

Finally, websites usually contain more information about a wine. On the other hand, unless you are fortunate enough to deal with the owner, most wine store clerks know little or nothing about their wines.

Hopefully more states will relax their unconstitutional laws prohibiting shipments from out of state retailers. But then, as online sales increase, the lost tax revenue may too hard for them to resist.
Andrew Arntfield
Toronto, Ontario, Canada —  November 9, 2014 11:03pm ET
3,000 emails with a 31% response rate, and of those 23% were online wine buyers. That's 214 online wine buyers surveyed out of a US adult population of something like 220,000,000. I wouldn't put much faith in any statistical conclusions drawn from that data. There's a +/- 7% margin of error with a confidence rate of 95%. So any stats pulled from this data could have a 14% swing.

And what does it mean when it says online wine buyers are "more likely" to be 40+ high income males? More likely than whom? And by how much? A lot of vaguarities in this article.

I think the 40+ high income male assumption is a good one, but I didn't need a survey to figure it out.
Guy Brouillette
Erie, Co —  November 10, 2014 11:28am ET
I am with John, this is me and my wine friends to a tee.

We travel to wine country every year to taste the new vintages in Oregon, Washington and Napa every other year. Because we use the internet so much to research wine it gives us great options.

While in wine country we only buy wine available at the winery where they have no distribution. Then we research the other wines we like that do have distribution and can score it at a much better price point. Many online wine shops will have deals on shipping and of course no sales tax which is likely to end sometime soon which helps.

Liquor laws across the US are antiquated and are not friendly to the new economy of direct to consumer purchasing. I am sure the big distributors have plenty of lobbyist in DC to help make sure it does not change.
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  November 11, 2014 5:54pm ET
I live in CT and there are many low cost Internet sites in NJ and NY that can ground ship and get me bottles the next day! I read WS Advance and Insider and grab hot wines before they sell out and/or the price shoot up. Many deals have free shipping on 3 or 4 bottles. I am in my mid 50's and have been building up my cellar for retirement when I won't have the funds but will have the time to drink those collectibles. So I seem to fit that profile as well.
I have told my son and daughter and their millennial friends about Internet wine deals but they tend to not plan their wine purchases and buy bottles as needed.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  November 16, 2014 12:33am ET
There are a surprising number of great bottlings that never make it to local retail shops. And if you ask me, the only time it's worth ordering on line is when they're unavailable any other way, and usually upwards of $25 per bottle.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans, LA —  December 1, 2014 5:38pm ET
Thanks for all your comments. Marianne McGarry Wolf, the lead author of the story, responded to some of the questions on data:

Thanks for letting me detail some of the numbers that make us confident in our findings. Data from MRI, one of the nation’s largest consumer surveys, shows that 31% of U.S. adults have consumed wine in the past 6 months. That is a population of roughly 73 million, not the entire 220 million U.S. population. Our survey sample size was 918 people who answered the survey (30.6% of 3,000 people surveyed). Based on accepted sample size theories, the findings have approximately +/- 3% error range at 95% confidence. Pretty reliable for a survey this size. While examining the 211 online buyers alone has an error range of approximately +/- 6% points, we focused on the differences between the online buyers and non online buyers, giving us the +/- 3% error range.

We found online wine buyers tend to be older, with 77% of the online buyers surveyed over the age of 40, compared to just 50% of non-online buyers. Just 14.7% of the online buyers were in the 21-29 age category (Millennials), compared to 38.8% of the respondents who do not purchase online. Of survey respondents, 78% of online wine buyers report a household income of $75,000 and up, while 65% of non-online buyers report a household income of $75,000 and up.

Of the 918 surveys collected, the majority of responders were female (62.5%). This is similar to the national MRI data with females representing 60.2% of all wine purchasers and males 39.8%. When comparing online wine buyers and non-online wine buyers, our data showed males are more likely than females to be online purchasers.

The full research will be submitted for peer review journal. I hope this is helpful.

Marianne McGarry Wolf, Ph.D.
Interim Department Head
Wine and Viticulture Department
California Polytechnic State University

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