January 12, 2006

Keyboards to Corkscrews

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Retailers who have tried selling wines next to the canned plums and the greeting cards have grown frustrated. The high-margin beverage is bathed in its own language, leaving non-wine-schooled consumers drunk with confusion.

One retail software company is trying to deal with this situation by introducing next week a kiosk that uses a sophisticated form of 20 Questions to establish the consumer's wine preferences by asking about everything from their coffee, soda and salt preferences to the nature of the occasion.

"There is not a well-established vocabulary for the common man in terms of taste," said Darby Williams, the marketing VP for the vendor, Active Decisions, of San Mateo, Calif. "We're asking questions about things that are fairly well understood."

The number of taste buds is not consistent among humans, and a consumer with a large number of taste buds would find certain strong flavors overpowering, Williams said. A robust Cabernet Sauvignon red wine, for example, might be the ideal beef companion for a consumer with a typical number of taste buds, but it might taste excessively bitter for a consumer with a large number of taste buds.

"This is really based on taste buds. The more taste buds they have, the more sensitive they are," Williams said. "Those big, bold wines are too intensive for them. It doesn't taste good to them."

To determine those taste sensitivities, the software poses a series of questions. One question asks how the consumer likes the artificial sweeteners found in many soft drinks.

Behind that question, Williams said, is the super-sweet taste of such sweeteners. A consumer who finds the taste unpleasant likely has a large number of taste buds and thus a more sensitive palate.

An early question asks how consumers like to take their coffee and explores milk/cream and sugar preferences and whether they like their coffee strong.

"These questions are objective and [consumers] can relate to that," Williams said.

At the end of the questioning, the software makes several wine recommendations, in line with price preferences the consumer selected. Wine ratings from Wine Enthusiast Magazine are also included with the recommended wines.

The software selects segments of wines that it considers appropriate and then fine tunes the selection with the price and wines on stock with that particular retailer.

"It absolutely does hook with inventory," Williams said. "We would get a data feed of all of the wines they have in those stores and we absolutely map to their assortment."

The kiosk hardware will likely cost about $2,000, Williams said, with the software and service costing "several hundred dollars per month."

The initial strategy is to offer these to grocery stores and other retails whose primary business is not selling wines. "Go where the pain is," Williams said, adding that wine stores typically have staff with extensive wine expertise, making the kiosks less essential.

One such wine specialist is Gary Fisch, owner of Gary's Wine and Marketplace, a three-store chain headquartered in Madison, N.J.

Fisch said such a kiosk might work, but it would depend on—among other factors—how long it took to use and how specific its recommendations were.

"Some gimmicks work wonderfully. I would have to see it and touch it and feel it to know," Fisch said. "We've seen some of these kiosks come around and we experimented with one, but people just didn't go for it." That machine, though, was instructional about wine and it didn't ask questions to help make recommendations.

Fisch said that the question method described, though, does work, and he has his own salespeople do much of the same thing. "I have them ask the coffee question," he said, adding that it's helpful when customers say they want a "dry" wine but can't explain how "dry" they want it.

"Coffee has some of the same things that wine does, in the way it coats your palate," Fisch said.