Despite how far we’ve come in terms of keeping up with the constant evolution of gadgets and engaging with various social platforms, most of us stick to old habits when consuming wine. Case in point: after a long day, most people have a favourite watering hole where they like to meet friends, reminiscent of the TV show Cheers (where everybody knows your name). Or think about how many times you’ve run to your neighbourhood wine shop or newsagent to grab a bottle of wine with a cute label or recognisable brand that fits your budget – only to find out later that it wasn’t the best-value-for-money or best-tasting bottle to pair with dinner.
The exception has been the growing online market for wine sales, which still feels vastly impersonal and overpromoted depending on the time of year. As a wine consumer, it’s surprising to me that although wine sites keep clients’ transaction history, most lack a Netflix-type recommendation engine. This means that recommendations are still very subjective when it comes to purchasing wine – whether it’s your trusted corner shop posting the ratings from wine critics (and brand promotions that month), a sommelier at a restaurant or your “wine expert” friend during dinner. And despite the growing number of wine apps such as Delectable, Vinous and Wine Ring (which claims to have an algorithm that learns your preferences), the online and offline experiences are still very distinct. Whether you’re buying at a shop or online, none of your data is integrated into an Amazon-like platform that learns your preferences, provides a range of options and is capable of delivering that bottle of wine so that you no longer have to schlep to the store. Enter Alibaba.
Fast forward to the present with Alibaba’s Tmall, which has taken it upon itself to “give wine consumption a 21st-century upgrade”. According to Alibaba, the “Future Bar” seeks to “merge the best of online and offline commerce for the benefit of both consumers and merchants”.
According to the announcement from Alibaba, the different features of “Future Bar” include:
- RFID technology: allows a consumer to simply pull a bottle off the shelf to see product information displayed on the screen, due to an embedded RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip in the bottle’s foil wrapping
- Tmall smart wine coolers: facilitate cashless checkout by allowing consumers to simply scan a QR code to open a cooler door, pull out a bottle and close the door again to pay automatically
While bars like this won’t immediately replace the centuries-old tradition of gathering at pubs and cocktail bars, the ease of use and comprehensive selection may just be just what densely populated emerging markets like China need. As the third-largest importer of wine around the world, just behind the US and UK, China is already leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to cashless payment and e-commerce. It’s no surprise that a model like Tmall can work owing to the lack of good wine shops in Tier 2 and Tier 3 Chinese cities and the millennial way of consumption, which is focused online.
While some of us luddites may bristle at this seemingly cold way of consuming wine, this brave new world of wine consumption may be closer to the present than you might think. At the recent Vinexpo Hong Kong, a biannual wine confab showcasing wines from around the world, government organisations like Wine Australia have already communicated the initial stages of a partnership with Tmall to support marketing efforts on massive retail days like Singles’ Day in China. Respected French wine critics Bettane & Desseauve also announced that Tmall will feature their reviews to complement its wine listings.
Though we’re not sure if we’re ready for robot waiters, a seamless and comprehensive way of purchasing wine does seem like a better (and more informed) way of buying a bottle rather than scrambling on our phone at the last minute. We can’t wait to check out this new bar of the future, coming to our neighbourhood soon – with friends, of course.