Wine opinion: buyers prefer the personal touch
Hong Kong's high internet penetration statistics (74.5 per cent of the population are internet users), and its shopping fetish, are enough to make the rash e-entrepreneur salivate. But we say, "Easy, tiger, let's take a closer look at the data."
While Hong Kong often gets lumped in with the mainland as a sizzling gypsy of online potential, anecdotal evidence has always suggested that isn't quite so.
We recently conducted a survey of more than 500 Hong Kong wine consumers in partnership with the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition to better understand what makes buyers spend, and what leaves their credit cards cold.
A substantial majority of those surveyed (67 per cent) said personal recommendations were the purchasing cue to beat all others, including the media, wine education, and even social media. What we need is a careful hand sell and we often only purchase online after we've met the seller in person.
Only eight per cent of those surveyed said they normally buy wine online, as opposed to 33 per cent who buy from private merchants, and 35 per cent who pledge their loyalty to specialist wine shops, where the personal recommendations can flow a little more easily.
In an arena where perceived authenticity is key to closing a sale (wine retailers we surveyed named "provenance" as one of the most valued aspects of their business, behind only price and staff relationships), the need to physically touch the product and see it with our own eyes is easy to understand.
In the absence of this capability, it appears that we are unwilling to trust somebody else to do the job. Compared with Japan, where both internet penetration (79.5 per cent) and e-commerce use (70 per cent) are high, in China trust has traditionally been concentrated within the family, with less trust extended to those outside of it.
To be fair, most Chinese societies do not draw a hard line between family and non-family members, and close family friends are often addressed as "Uncle" or "Auntie".
But it is rare that trust will be extended to those we've never met. Entrepreneurs bumbling into the online space without building relationships first are generally putting the cart before the horse.
Even consumers aged 25 and under, who undoubtedly spend the greatest portion of their lives on the internet, have not been enthusiastic adopters of online wine shopping. They are actually outshone in this regard by their 26- to 45-year-old peers.
Whether they will mature into online wine shopaholics once they've had time to navigate the wine world remains to be seen.
But why is Hong Kong less wine e-commerce-friendly than our neighbours to the north, who presumably have even fewer historical reasons for believing in the kindness of strangers?
There are some companies making inroads into the market, but nobody has dominated the market the way yesmywine.com has on the mainland.
The lure of an attractive physical environment would seem to be the only way that bricks-and-mortar retailers could hope to compete with online services.
But the retailers we surveyed all ranked "environment" as the least important aspect of their shops in terms of attracting customers.
"Price", bizarrely, ranked first, although anybody with a basic grasp of mathematics, and an inkling of Hong Kong real estate prices, could tell you there's no way a bricks-and-mortar retailer can beat an online player on price, even if they also have a finger in the online pie.
The only answer we can come up with is the distinctively Hong Kong obsession with convenience; who has the time to wait for a delivery van when there's a shop conveniently around the corner?
- The sample size of the survey was 508 and the polling period was from the beginning of July until early September.
Debra Meiburg is a master of wine