Shopping online is fast becoming the norm in retail. Names such as Google and Amazon are now part of our everyday language and indispensable tools to our lifestyle and shopping patterns. Buying wine online, however, can still be a tricky business. It’s a more personal product, with plenty of pitfalls for the uninitiated. That’s why we’ve come up with the 10 top tips below to guide you through, and make your online wine-buying a satisfying experience, time and time again. So, here are our ten tips on how to choose a wine online:
1 – Get a Good Feeling, Remember That Trust is Key
Certainly not just a wine industry issue, it applies to all online shopping. A website’s design and interface can often tell you a lot of what you need to know. Lots of flashy colours and “limited time offers” are usually a turn-off. We have the likes of Groupon and Wowcher for that. On the flip side, a website that hasn’t been updated since 1995 is unlikely to offer you the easiest of shopping experiences. Remember that when is trusting an interface with your personal details. Only use online shops that have been soundly reviewed, come with a trusted recommendation, or have been marketed in reputable editorials. That sounds very over the top, but essentially all it’s saying is that if your mates have used it, and are happy enough to recommend it, then chances are you’ll be more than fine.
2 – Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better
A lot like standing in a supermarket looking at walls and walls of bottles looking back at you, too much choice online can be confusing. It can also be argued that it’s a sign of a company trying to cover too many bases, without clear direction of what they’re offering and with our clear selection criteria. Large, stagnant wine lists also increase the likelihood of the customers being pushed towards poorly selling product lines to turnover stock. Of course this doesn’t work all the time. Large organisations with large customer bases are undoubtedly going to have large lists without detriment. On the other hand, if the choice is too limited it makes repeat purchases less interesting. But it remains a red flag to bear in mind. Look for websites that have a clear “thing”, what consultants call a Unique Selling Point. Are they the best place to buy Provence Rosé on the internet? If you love Provence Rosé then you’re going to do well there, aren’t you?
3 – Price comparisons are useful, but not definitive
One of the beauties of online shopping is the ability to make price comparisons in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous online companies that understand this and advertise low prices as click-bait to get you to visit their site. Once there, you find that the price doesn’t work anymore, or they have run out of stock, or they are advertising different vintages and/or producers. The wine world is as rife with this as any. Of course, no-one wants to pay over the odds, so do your homework by all means. Just don’t always believe everything you see or read. Also, and in wine, this is particularly important, the price should reflect the quality and labour invested by producers. An artisanal wine cannot possibly cost the same as a mass-produced industrial pour. So paying a fair price for a better product can be important for both you, as a consumer, and the passionate winemakers you’re supporting.
4 – Delivery fees aren’t the end of the world
This can be a very tricky one. As free delivery has more or less become an accepted standard, most consumers will be put off by delivery fees and other additional costs. Wine is not that simple. Liquids in glass bottles need care and attention in both packaging and distribution. The wines also need to be stored correctly in the warehouse to ensure they arrive to you in top condition. This all costs money. Online wine merchants offering free delivery as standard are a red flag, often using the cheapest packaging and delivery options, which are never ideal unless you don’t mind the odd arrival of wet cardboard! These sites are rare, with most sites offering free delivery only over a certain purchase amount. Paying a fee for the safe delivery of wine is not the end of the world.
5 – Mixed cases and Wine Clubs can be great ways to experience more
Most respected sites – like Wanderlust – will offer some form of wine club, or a monthly mixed case on subscription. These can be great ways to discover wines that you wouldn’t normally put in your basket yourself. They also often have pre-selected cases, focusing on particular regions, grapes or styles. Of course, this all goes back to the idea of trust. Does this retailer have wines that fit your tastes and ethos? Look for wine clubs that offer interesting options in the box and other, interesting, perks to learn about wine.
6 – Customer service matters more than ever
Yes, this is online shopping. It’s all about one or two clicks of a mouse and you get wines winging their way to your door. But don’t forget the human element. Maybe you want to ask questions about certain wines? Maybe you need recommendations for a specific dish or special occasion? What if things go wrong, with parcels getting lost, damaged, or stolen? It’s very important that someone can be reached at the other end of either phone, email, or online chat. Just because we’re buying online doesn’t mean we don’t need the human element to help us out.
7 – Check returns & refund policy
Wine can be a tricky product to ship around. If you buy from reputable companies then they will of course use the best protective packaging and the best couriers possible. But even with this, things can go wrong. It’s important to know what to do if you receive damaged bottles. Often this will be a simple case of taking a photo of the damaged parcel and the insurance on the delivery will cover the replacement, but do check. Wine can also, albeit rarely, arrive with production or storage faults. This is often neither the fault of the courier nor the company you bought them from. But if the wine you receive isn’t in a fit state for drinking you need to know how to make the seller aware and how to get it replaced. Usually this means putting the cork back in and returning the wine to the sender for them to check for the exact wine fault. But do check in the terms and conditions. And again, reach out for that friendly voice at the other end of a phone number.
8 – Look for the Smallest Route to Producer
People who produce wine have a tougher time than you might imagine. Not only are they at the mercy of mother nature to produce your favourite pours, they then have to sell them at the end of it all. Trying to find the best way to get their wines to you lovely people can be a minefield of unscrupulous buyers looking to beat them down on price and increase their own margins. It isn’t always much fun. The best thing to do is look for online sales platforms that clearly have strong and fruitful direct relationships with the men and women who are making the wine. The best online platforms will make that clear. You’ll get a fair price and a smooth experience, and so will the winemaker!
9 – Follow the pros for inspiration
Wine personalities are rarely house-hold names. We’ve not had a Jamie Oliver of the wine world for…well…ever really?! Luckily this is 2020. There are plenty of other avenues to follow the best in UK wine personalities to give you inspiration for your online shopping. Podcasts such as Wine Blast by UK wine super-couple Susie Barrie MW and Peter Richards MW are well worth a listen. Also YouTube channels like the Drinks Coach UK from This Morning’s Joe Wadsack are quick, fun, and give wine recommendations and drinking tips from some of the best in the business.
10 – Look for Specialist Online Merchants
There always feels a slight issue with multi-retailers trying to promote themselves as a one-stop-shop for all your needs. In the days when you had to physically go from shop to shop to buy your different products, there is of course ease and practicality to being able to get your bathroom tiles and lavender bushes at the same checkout. But we’re online now, and it’s the time to follow the experts. Specialist wine retailers are invariably run by dedicated wine professionals that can offer good selections, as well as accurate help and advice. Multi retailers are under other constraints in terms of range and price. Scrapping sites might look good from a distance but rarely offer expert advice if needed. Specialist online wine retailers do better if their customers are enjoying the wines and the shopping experience. Make use of that!
So there you go. 10 top tips to help you along with your online wine shopping experience. We hope you find them useful!
This is a guest post by Mike Turner
Mike is a professional wine writer specialising in sustainability in the wine trade. He writes regularly for The Buyer on-trade magazine and has also written for Harpers, The Winerist, and On-Trade Supplier magazines. Mike also designs websites for the wine and spirits trade. He lives in the East Midlands with his wife and dogs and DIY shed.