Grape & Grain

Chinese millennials’ online wine buying habits a confusing subject

Writer not sure how to research online wine preferences of millennials in China, so she looks at habits of young Americans instead

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 5:33pm

Like anybody else with a daunting New Year’s resolution, I’ve spent the past week in bouts of deep procrastination interspersed with meagre attempts to shame myself into starting. And like trying to relinquish cigarettes or lose 10kg, the best method for researching the preferences of Chinese millennial wine drinkers who shop for wine online isn’t totally clear.

Why Chinese millennials buying wine online is a phenomenon ripe for research

Fortunately, some bits are straightforward: definitions for one. Unlike the poorly defined millennials of Europe and North America, aged anything from 15 to 39 and identifiable only by their ability to be the perpetual frenemies of marketers and employers, Chinese millennials are a neat composite of what Chinese refer to as the post-’80s and ’90s generation. That is, anyone born after the institution of the one child policy but old enough to have some economic impact. Remember, the drinking age for wine and beer in China is 16.

From there it gets a little fuzzier. Because there is not a great deal of market or academic research on the consumption behaviour of millennial wine drinkers in China, I’ve had to look to their US counterparts for guidance in writing my literature review.

Unfortunately, there has been something of a kerfuffle in the market research community over the actual significance of US millennial wine consumers. For those of you unfamiliar with the saga of the Wine Market Council vs. Silicon Valley Bank (I was ignorant about it myself until a few days ago) it’s best outlined in Roger Bohmrich MW’s Wine Business Monthly piece.

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It started with WMC’s 2016 report that millennials consume 42 per cent of all wine in America, or 46 million more cases than baby boomers, the previous US champions of wine guzzling. All manner of media hullabaloo and countless ad campaigns featuring flannel shirts and odd facial hair ensued. This was followed by the unceremonious downgrade of this claim to “millennials consume about the same amount of wine as baby boomers” six weeks later.

While this may seem rather unexciting to some (okay, many), and the WMC has downplayed the slip-up as a methodological error, SVB’s counterclaim that millennial consumption may only be 15 per cent of the US total, rather than 42 per cent, sexes up the debate. Essentially this would mean that out of every wine bottle drunk in the US, instead of two rather large glasses, millennials are only purchasing one, and a rather measly one at that (a mere tasting pour some might say).

Furthermore, although US millennials are undoubtedly gaining importance – if only because their boomer parents are laying off the booze or, shall we say, exiting the scene – tech-savvy millennials are apparently as unlikely as their grandparents’ generation (the depressingly named silent generation) to buy wine online. This surprising point is perhaps attributable to the fact that US millennials generally buy wine in the under US$10 (HK$78) and US$10 to US$14.99 categories, while in the US in 2015, the average online wine purchase was US$37.91. In other words, US online wine shops are just too fancy for millennials.

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Why this matters is that, unless Chinese millennials are dramatically flusher than US ones – and even if they were, a recent Nielsen study suggests Chinese millennials are keener to save for a home and their children’s future – then one can’t help but worry whether a study on Chinese millennial wine consumers is a woof up the wrong tree.

After all, 63 per cent of Chinese in their 20s still live at home, according to CBRE, but 90 per cent want to buy property eventually. Once they start thinking about moving out, they may become even less free-spending. Are these denizens of some of the world’s most expensive real estate markets (an average Beijing millennial can expect to spend 25 years paying off a home) really going to be shelling out for pinot noir and merlot, let alone home wine storage?

And yet, the answer to all these questions is, inevitably, that I need to get my survey out. If Chinese millennials’ wine interest has been vastly overblown by the media, best to find out now so we can cancel all those celebrity endorsements and funny/ironic/irreverent social media campaigns. Otherwise, we’re just millennial wino myth perpetuaters (and so the self-shaming continues).

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer and the author of Diary of a Master of Wine Student