The upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be bringing out some classic post-trauma behaviours among US wine consumers
Much will be written and studied about this period of history we are currently living through. As well as the obvious research topics (medicine, politics), I suspect that the behavioral economists, psychologists and anthropologists will have a field day, digging into the ways in which we as human individuals, communities and societies responded to the threat of a deadly virus and the associated economic harm.
In recent days, my reading around the subject has turned to studies about trauma and what happens afterwards. Over the past three decades, our understanding of post-traumatic behavior (chiefly, the stress disorders that collectively get described as PTSD) has expanded dramatically, to the point where such things are widely recognized and treatments and therapies developed.
At the root of PTSD is the destabilizing effect of ‘shattered assumptions’, according to Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s landmark 1992 paper on the subject. If long-held beliefs about the world suddenly turn out to be false, our brains struggle to restore a semblance of normality. In short, the role of therapy is to allow the brain to find a way out of this quandary.
Genuine trauma is clearly very serious and not the same as, for instance, not being able to go to your local Italian restaurant or visit your friends. However lately I have been struck by some of the parallels between the way patients recover from trauma and some of the consumer sentiments and actions being expressed in our latest report on the US wine consumer during the pandemic.
A recurring theme in the trauma therapy literature is the ‘focus on the familiar’. By re-establishing familiar routines, seeing people and doing things that you would normally do, it allows the mind to relax a bit and not focus solely on the trauma itself. Within this, we seek out supportive allies, which could be people, or activities, or even products – the friend who makes us laugh, the pick-up basketball game, that fast-food burger we always crave – that help keep us distracted and soothed.
I wonder if some of this seeking of familiarity is behind some of the recent behaviors we have observed in the wine category. Our new report, out today, reports that those people who were committed wine drinkers before the pandemic have become even more committed during it, boosting off-premise sales volumes dramatically during March and April. The concern within the wine trade was that this was simply panic buying, which would create a huge sales ‘chasm’ straight afterwards, but this hasn’t happened. As to why, our data suggests that regular wine drinkers have found more occasions (and excuses) to reach for a glass of wine – the comfort of the familiar.
Other familiarity-seeking behaviors in evidence from our data include a focus on the local. In times of stress, our tendency as humans has always been to become inward looking and value our local (and national) communities – more true now in an era of lockdown and restrictions of movement. ‘Local’ consumers have the ability to buy direct more easily, visit more frequently as movement restrictions are lifted and feel engagement to support brands that are both physically and culturally closer to home.
Echoes of this appear in the consumer recalled purchase data we have recorded. For many wine drinkers, the country of origin that they typically bought wine from hasn’t changed that much; however for a minority, there has been a notable shift in purchase preferences towards domestic wines and away from imports. Some 18% of our US respondents reported buying more wine from California and other US regions during this time, while 20% said they were buying less wine from France, Italy and Spain. Additionally, US wine drinkers increased their trust in California wines and conversely, lost trust most amongst old world wines, particularly those from Italy.
Further analysis of our data is suggesting that there may be quite a spectrum of feelings at work among US wine drinkers trying to re-establish normality. At one extreme are an optimistic and active group who have made minimal changes to their lifestyle are less nervous about returning to the on-premise. For them, the current situation is not so much trauma as inconvenience. They tend to be younger, more affluent and city-based and comprise about 17% of monthly wine drinkers. At the other extreme, 20% of monthly wine drinkers have reacted strongly to the lockdown, and have significantly cut down on spending and wine consumption, and are very reluctant to return to an active social life. They have yet to start to re-establish normality, perhaps because the trauma of the situation is still very real: they could be ill with the virus, or have a family member in hospital, or have lost their job – or, nightmarishly, all three.
The group in the middle comprise the largest single segment – around 45% of our respondents. We have dubbed them ‘moderates’, and they appear to be following the prescription of post-trauma therapy very closely. From the limited perspective we have seen so far, they are ploughing onwards with the same relationship with their wine, same frequency, same brands, same occasions. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but the 6pm Chardonnay is still chilled.