On Retailers, Scores, and the Human Condition

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Isn't the point of life to live it through one's own actions and experiences rather than trudging along blindly behind those that have gone before? Surely there is some merit in using the findings of others as sign posts to avoid the worst potential pitfalls, but a life without individualized experience is hardly a life worth living. With its etymological origins rooted in the notion of the "water of life", whisky is inexorably tied to the notion of experience; either as a vehicle for it, or as an experience in and of itself.

So why are people allowing others to limit their experiences in life and in whisky? 
Perhaps it stems from people's desire to be curated; to be told what is "good" so that they needn't form opinions of their own, and so long as they abide by the edict of the curator then they can never be completely wrong. I get it. I understand the fear of "buyer's remorse"; that feeling of "I can't believe I just spent $100 on this!". But to run all decisions through that filter of fear means that you are also robbing yourself of the joy of "I can't believe I only spent $40 on this!". Naturally, not everyone is afraid of making the wrong choice, but it is most certainly true that almost all people want the affirmation that what they have is the best. There is a distinct satisfaction in knowing that you have the best of something, but how do you know if you have the best of something for you if you have only listened to one source? 

Let's take this line of thought a step further: what if you are not actively engaging that fear filter or reassuring listed ranking, and instead someone is implementing it for you, thereby limiting your available choices? 

This is the issue whisky lovers face just about everywhere their purchasing options are limited by their geography. Be it through government regulation of mail/online ordering of whisky, prohibitive shipping cost, or government retail monopolies, many whisky fans are limited in their choices for a variety of systemic reasons. This places these people and their experiences at the mercy of those that control the availability of whiskies in their market: the retailers' buyers. The fact that there are one or a few buyers controlling the availability of what is on the shelves isn't inherently a problem if those people are dedicated to their job at a retailer committed to supplying variety and quality with well trained staff. Problems arise when either one or both of the consumer-side or retailer-side of the equation devolves into apathy and reliance on curated lists and ratings.

Arguably the greatest issue facing the people in these systemically limited markets is the proliferation of one person's scores and lists to the point of becoming gospel. The neophytes and consumers still learning where the road is won't know any better than to accept the opinions of one person as the truth that they should follow as their sign posts. But for the buyers, who are paid (especially in government retail monopolies) to ensure that variety is maintained while their selections sell, their duty becomes that of making their own decisions based on both data points and their own experience. Sadly, this is rarely the case and the reliance on scores, lists, and the like promotes lazy buying by lazy retailers, which in turn limits the choices and experiences available to the end consumer. For instance, here in Ontario where all who imbibe do so under the Sauron-like watch of the LCBO, we know for a fact that the first question the LCBO buyers ask whisky makers and purveyors is "what's its score in the Bible?"; not "who might this product appeal to?" or even "how does it taste?". This means that arguably the largest single buyer of alcoholic beverages in the world is allowing one of its top selling categories to be dictated by the tastes of a few number-issuing, list-curating souls who may or may not have ulterior motives such as book sales or payments from manufacturers influencing their lists and scores.

My quarrel in all of this is not with these so-called "taste-makers", rather it is with the positive feedback loop and self-perpetuating cycle created by the undue attention placed on these curated compendiums that seek to codify the whiskies of the world with numerical values assigned based on their opinions. When end consumers pay too much heed to these score-setters, it allows the buyers to be lazy in their selections because they know that with a simple shelf sticker that garishly displays "97 Points - Jem Bippi's Wine Cooler Monthly" they can almost be certain that the product will ultimately sell enough to justify their pay grade, and if it doesn't, then the only ones discredited are the one who issued the score of 97 in the first place and the distiller who must surely have supplied a bad batch. Thus allowing the lazy buyer to remain in their job, while scores of people wonder why they can't stand to enjoy their purchase without drowning it in some crude cocktail.

Sadly, there is likely no quick fix to this systemic situation. But if you are reading ScotchBlog, then odds are that you're a whisky fan at some stage of the journey. You can help others pay less attention to these lists that only rate without ever truly explaining why a whisky deserves nine thumbs up. After all, if we look after our whisky-loving or whisky-curious peers by sharing with them our experiences through an active frame of reference so that they can understand the reasons behind our opinions, that will at least reduce some of the impact of these individual score setters. 

Meanwhile, the question of how to ween the buyers from the number-udder is a tougher one. After all, no one likes to be told how to do their job, even if they are visibly half-assing it. Surely there must be a way for these people to become better at the job they are paid to do in a way that everyone wins. I'm not asking that a retailer's whisky buyer be a superhuman registry of all things whisky, as they likely have dozens of different hats to wear in a day. What I am asking is for that person to do their job with pride: to ensure that they bring in products that will sell because those products deliver the experiences that people seek regardless of the name or number they can put on the shelf tag. That they take the time to educate their team's front-line staff on the products that they have selected so that those interacting with the end-consumer can provide some basic guidance to aid them in their decision. The end result of this will be to ensure that the products the buyers do stock will sell and will do so at a greater profit margin as they did not have to suffer a higher cost of goods sold just because some wine ponce decided that they wanted to give a whisky 95 points. 

Clearly then, with just a little effort and professionalism, everyone can win. The retailer sees higher profit margins with less reliance on a small number of suppliers, while the consumers see lower overall prices and greater variety meaning that they are apt to have more money to spend on other products. With a little extra money left in their pockets, maybe people will even end up spending more overall as mental barriers tied to the cost of a single product recede, thereby improving sales. Meanwhile the distillers are able to flourish and hone their craft because the sales of their products with be more closely aligned with the overall merit of their whiskies as determined by the end consumers, rather than based on one or two people's arbitrarily assigned numbers for them. 

Perhaps together we experienced whisky fans can usher in an era where curated lists and scores no longer rule the day and the shelves around us. Perhaps this is a pipe dream and a curated existence is all the masses really want. In the end, only one thing is certain: we're going to continue to strive to share our whisky experiences in the most relatable way that we can, and maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to help someone find something new that they truly love.

4 Comments

Don't most whiskey products at the LCBO have to be represented by an agent? If the agents don't represent a large section of the market, then these products will never see the shelf at the LCBO. The problem is this system that relies on agents.

There are a number of distillers and independent bottlers that are represented by agents whose products still never see the light of day because the agents, while facilitating the movement of product, are not the ones who make the ultimate decisions to buy the products for resale on LCBO shelves.

Are some agents culpable in the proliferation of score-dependency? Almost certainly, as there are several out there that are all too happy to trot out a number. But they aren't the ones chairing a sales meeting/product review session in a state of palpable ennui whose first question to the product representative is "what score did ______ give it?" This is the first hand account that I have heard from both agents and representatives direct from the distillers, some who've flown overseas for a meeting with the LCBO buyers, several times each over the past 3 years.

The LCBO is a veritable Shangri La compared to Saskatchewan. At least in Ontario there are people who actually know some things about the products they're selling. The government employees who work in SLGA stores are little more than glorified cashiers; it is beyond pointless to actually ask them for information on a product because they just don't know. They get paid to stock shelves and ring customers through.

Consequently I've watched the shelf tags trumpeting ratings points become more and more pervasive the last few years. Not that it matters; anyone with an active interest in whisky will make their way through the meagre amount of product they actually stock in very short order.

LCBO may be over-reliant on the bible but at least they have the courtesy of offering a wider variety of products. Things could always be worse.

Absolutely, things could definitely be worse. But when we're looking at an organization with the purchasing power and captive market-size of the LCBO it is reasonable to expect better. Add to that the fact that the entirety of the LCBO's employees are paid by the public they are supposed to serve, and is reasonable to not just expect, but to demand better. This is true of all government-controlled purveyors, regardless of province or other geographic region.

All of that said, I truly do feel for all whisky fans on the prairies as I've heard this complaint several times. At least things seem to be picking up in Winnipeg, especially with their recent whisky festival appearing to be a success.

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