Wine in a Box (a Giant, Automated Fancy Box)

November 8, 2010

Buying wine, for many, often involves some level of ritual.

Think of picking up the bottle, holding it in your hand, examining the label up close. Those who do their buying in wine shops relish the opportunity to chat with staff about terroir and appellation. Other times, buying wine might be a more harried experience, motivated by what’s on sale and pairs best with tuna casserole. Nonetheless, whether you go high-brow or low-brow, it can’t be denied that throwing wine in your cart always feels more special than just a loaf of bread or a box of cereal.

So how would wine buying change if we started getting our bottles from…a vending machine?

Pennsylvania recently introduced 100 state-owned wine vending machines at grocery stores in and around the state offering, 53 different types of vino to customers. The move, according to the state’s Liquor Control Board is first and foremost to provide even better customer service than the board’s retail locations. In Pennsylvania, all alcohol sales are regulated by the state, meaning customers have to seek out state-run stores to buy their booze. Now they’ll be able to buy their wine, at least, in various grocery stores housing the kiosks.

“While our PLCB stores continue to provide excellent customer service and a wider variety of products, the kiosks are a way to give our customers an added level of convenience in today’s busy society,” said PJ Stapleton, the PLCB’s board chairman.

Amen.

In an interaction designed to take less than 20 seconds, the customer selects the wine he or she wants from a touch screen, exhales into a breathalyzer to verify sobriety, swipes an ID (confirmed by a PLCB customer service rep in another locale, watching the transaction through a video link), swipes the payment method, and gets a picture taken before the bottle is delivered.

One oenophile thinks the idea of a wine vending machine has intrinsic appeal. Rajkumari Neogy is a corporate leadership consultant and world traveler who has sampled wine in more than 30 countries and regions.  Yes, she agrees, there is something satisfying about holding a wine bottle in your hand before deciding to purchase it; however, because of the shorter wait than a supermarket, and lower cost than a liquor store (Hey, BevMos are few and far between), she’d purchase wine from a vending machine “ in a heartbeat.”

But, she continues, “I’d need to know it was the real thing, not some Costco-esque knockoff.”

And if you’re a Pennsylvania resident, even if the wines aren’t in the same league as Joseph Phelps or Silver Oak, the fact that you can plan your dinner party all in one place must be damn appealing.

State-run kiosks have only begun trickling into Pennsylvania grocery stores over the last two months, so whether customers are digging the idea is yet to be seen.

Variations on the state-run wine machine, however, have seen some success.  The Wine Expert offers a kiosk to wine merchants; these kiosks run software that returns expert advice on the wine’s region, type, year, and more, to help the consumer make an informed choice.  An interactive wine kiosk in Zurich, Switzerland is proving popular. And a wine vending machine bar, where patrons purchased machine-doled tastes, rose and fell to mixed reviews over a three-year period in San Francisco’s Mission district.

In these cases, however, the added technology augments rather than entirely replaces the more traditional wine buying experience.  A state liquor board’s initiative notwithstanding, time will tell whether a truly self-service option will win over the wine buying public in the U.S.

Vending machines are big business – and not just for junk food anymore.  Audrey Watters notes in an article about high-end vending machines that customers continue to price convenience higher than anything else:

“A study by the NCR Corporation found that 86 percent of North American consumers were more likely to do business with stores offering some sort of self-service and that self-service technology contributed to a more positive perception of a brand.”

But would these work elsewhere?  Despite all the criticisms and observations of malfunction (for example, using mouthwash can skew the breathalyzer), is the convenience factor alone enough give the wine vending machine legs in places where liquor access is already abundant? Or more importantly, will wine “taste” differently when bought from a vending machine?