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Are sensory descriptors a tasting room turn-off?

A Cornell University study suggests that including sensory descriptors on tasting sheets can reduce sales in the tasting room.

Contrary to popular belief – and the results of previous wine and food studies – including sensory descriptors in tasting room col­lateral materials may not increase wine sales. Spurred by the lack of research available about the effect sensory descriptors have on con­sumer choice when used in con­junction with product samples, researchers at Cornell University looked to winery tasting rooms in New York for answers.

According to Miguel I. Gómez, the Ruth and William Morgan Assis­tant Professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who conducted the study in conjunction with graduate student Marin Shapiro, “The study has raised the issue with tasting room managers that certain kinds of information may work better than others.” Gómez has presented the work before industry and busi­ness audiences on the East Coast and noted that tasting room manag­ers there have begun experiment­ing with their tasting notes to see what effect those modifications have on sales.

The study, “The Effects of Tasting Sheet Sensory Descrip­tors on Tasting Room Sales,” was designed to examine the impact that technical and aesthetic sensory descriptors have on bottle sales for wineries that rely on tasting rooms as their primary sales channel.

Over a period of six weeks, researchers monitored the week­end sales at nine New York tasting rooms. The wineries alternated their use of tasting room sheets between those that included objec­tive and subjective sensory descrip­tors, and those that had none but were otherwise the same.

Researchers evaluated the sales data using multiple regression analysis that controlled for several factors, including the two different data sheets, the size of the win­ery, day of the week, weather and special events. The results of the study attribute an increase in sales – $215.53 on a given day – to the use of tasting sheets that did not include sensory descriptors.

In an effort to account for the impact that customer demograph­ics may have had on sales, Gómez selected tasting rooms in Long Island and the Finger Lakes where four out of five visitors were not considered local residents. The majority of visitors during the six-week period of the study were likely from nearby areas or other eastern states. “This scenario would apply to tasting rooms in new and emerging wine regions,” Gómez explained, adding that he would like to conduct a simi­lar study in California, where, he believes, tasting room visitors may be more knowledgeable.

Prior food industry research on the use of descriptors supports the idea that they play a vital role in reducing the risk consumers asso­ciate with making purchasing deci­sions and increasing the perception of overall quality and the sales of products. The differences in con­sumer perception between the use of technical or objective descriptors and aesthetic or subjective descrip­tors for wine has also been studied.

The use of subjective descrip­tors on wine labels has been shown to add more monetary value to the product than technical or scientific terms and they can also serve as a bridge to connect tech­nical terms with familiar aromas, flavors and sensations. Longer descriptions have also been asso­ciated with higher bottle prices. Studies of expensive wines reveal that they’re often described in length using subjective terms and recommended with more luxurious food pairings.

Gómez’ study points out that sensory descriptors have been shown to increase sales when consumers are faced with a large assortment of brands and varieties. But they seem less important in an intimate tasting room setting where staff provides the information about the wines, and the selection of brands and varieties is limited. By removing sensory descriptors from tasting sheets in this scenario, consumers may be more likely to interact with tasting room staff and, as a result, have a better overall customer service experience that would increase sales.

“The study raises the issue that the information you provide to your visitors is important,” he said. “It’s been gratifying and interesting to talk with tasting room managers about modifying their tasting notes to see what happens.”

Originally published in the May – June 2014 issue of Vineyard & Winery Management

 

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