I’m old enough to remember when Coors beer could only be bought in the Rocky Mountain states. In the east, a fridge full of Coors implied a connection to a glamorous and far-away world of ski chalets and mountain vistas. People used to check six cases of Coors as baggage on flights out of Denver, and Hollywood made movies about rich guys bootlegging Coors by the truckload.
Then Coors went national and, once generally available, became just another indistinguishable domestic beer. Familiarity, as the saying goes, breeds contempt.
So it is with wine. If you live someplace like, for example, Kentucky, there are thousands of wines produced by small wineries that you are never, ever going to see in stores. Ask any savvy wine consumer and you’re likely to hear that the unavailable wines are more distinct and of higher quality than the commercial dreck available locally.
A new study goes a long way toward explaining that phenomenon, implying that a future wine business based on direct shipping and universal access may not be all sunshine and teddy bears. The study, written by University of Chicago researcher Sara Kim and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, does not, actually, deal directly with the wine business. It focuses instead on how consumers balance the value of a product and its ease of attainment. It finds, perhaps not surprisingly, that we tend to value more highly that which is most difficult to obtain.
Kim looked at charitable contributions and sexual attraction, among other things. But in one experiment she gave consumers a hypothetical choice: basically, that a bottle of wine at a nearby store is good, but one across town might be better. Reactions to the quality of the wines were then measured, and — hey presto! — the wine from across town tended to be rated higher. This effect was most pronounced among consumers highly confident in their ability to discern good and bad wine — that is, the type of consumers that would most tend to buy wine from small, far away wineries.
There is, of course, a self-justifying aspect to the consumer perception. Who wants to admit they’re dumb enough to drive all the way across town to buy a bottle of wine that is no better than the bottle of wine available around the corner? But in an earlier, related study Kim and co-author Aparna A. Labroo, looked at consumers’ tendencies to assume difficulty equals importance:
This occurs because people usually put high effort into whichever means promises goal attainment, and they mistakenly reverse this correlation. Thus, effort is taken as a signal of instrumentality. This inference of instrumentality, in turn, results in higher evaluation of the product in question, and concluded that when people pursue goals, they tend to believe the difficult steps are the most important.
So, in seeking the general availability of direct shipping, there’s a risk that the mystique of inaccessible wines will be pierced by the contemptuous familiarity of one-click shopping. On the web, everything becomes an indistinct chunk of the long consumer tail.
Making the product of small wineries easier to get may not be the great thing most wineries imagine. In fact, if Kim’s research is any indication, it may lead to just the opposite: commoditization of all but the most famous wines.