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  "Where are the women?"

Rossman, Graham Associates, NYC
Dec. 29, 1999

Proprietary Market Research Study of Retail Wine Shop Service*

By Marlene Rossman
©1999 Rossman, Graham Associates

Executive Summary

Many women and diverse consumers, when questioned, say they enjoy wine, but do not consume it or purchase it on a regular basis. While some studies show that women purchase close to 60% of wine nationally, that is not the case in New York City, where wine is not sold in supermarkets. Among the entire U.S. population, the group of core wine consumers is stable and wine consumption is only 2 gallons per person annually. (This is still lower than the 1986 consumption levels). From our experiential and secondary research, we formed the hypotheses that women and multicultural consumers are treated differently from white males while shopping for wine and ordering in restaurants. Women may drink more wine than men, but, at least in New York City, men are purchasing and ordering it for women.

Women and other diverse groups including African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, are interested in learning about more about wine as well as consuming it, but they often feel that there are barriers based on gender and ethnicity. Those barriers range from internal ones (time pressures, risk aversion, confusion as to varietals and labels, etc.) to external ones (stereotyping, poor service, lack of educational outreach). In a recent issue of the Wine Spectator, the editor asked, "Where are the Women?" when it comes to attending wine tastings. The question should read "Where are the Women and Diverse Consumers?" At the recent New York Wine Experience, it appeared that only about 20% of the attendees were women, and I noted only two persons of color. The short answer is that women and diverse consumers do not feel welcome at tastings or in purchasing wine.

In order to bring this issue to the attention of the industry, and to and improve the level of service at the retail level, we conducted a multilevel market research study which included both the "mystery shop" research project described below and the Women's Wine Preference survey.

I recently presented my educational seminar, "You Have the Wine List, Now What?", to two groups of professional women, Women in Communications, Inc. and the Financial Women's Association of New York. Both events sold out, so we know that women are very anxious to learn about wine. We are dedicated to making wine more approachable and accessible to all New Yorkers.

The "Mystery Shop" Study


  1. To examine the quality of customer service at New York City wine retailers.

  2. To determine whether the level of service varies based on the gender and/or ethnicity of the customer.

Rationale Rossman, Graham Associates undertook this proprietary project as a result of perceived poor service in wineshops. We wanted to determine how extensive the problem is, and if it is influenced by the gender or ethnicity of the customer.

Many women (and men) and in the US see wine as an elitist drink. This is especially true in New York: it is easier to market wine in the West, where it is readily available in supermarkets and more a part of the lifestyle, than in the Northeast, where the consumer must make a special trip to the liquor store for that bottle of chardonnay.

In general, women appear to be unhappy with service in retail shops and restaurants. As a result of wine's elitist connotation and many stores' poorly trained staff, wine retail shops are especially uncomfortable places for women and diverse consumers to browse in.

We set out to see if our findings were consistent with our hypothesis that women and diverse consumers get sub par service. (Of course, we are not alone in noticing this. Tim Zagat reported that 80% of women customers surveyed for his new restaurant guide said that they get worse service than men.)

Research Methodology

Data Collection Four shoppers participated in the study--a middle aged white woman, a 30 year old Asian American woman, a 30- something woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage and, as a control, a middle aged white man. All four shoppers were highly educated business professionals with at least one graduate degree.

The study was conducted over a period of 4 months, from August to early November of 1999, and was completed before the holiday season, to keep the variables constant. (E.g., during the holiday season shopping volume increases significantly, thereby influencing customer service).

The data collected and analyzed in this study were part of a multilevel study on wine. To keep the findings clean, each shopper was given a script to follow and asked not to deviate from the basics of the text. Each shopper had an observer present to insure objectivity. The observer also recorded the information on audio tape. Shoppers were given a two page form to record all information in detail and asked to fill it out as soon as they left the store. While details were still fresh in their mind, shoppers were asked to note impressions on:

Description of store and layout
Sales help, including whether there were any women
Number of customers present and ratio of men to women shoppers
What specific wines were offered (were they expensive or inexpensive or whether it was a good value)
The amount of time spent with the shopper
Salesperson's level of wine knowledge
Salesperson's attitude

Each participant visited the same 11 wine shops in different neighborhoods of Manhattan (Village, Gramercy/Flatiron, Midtown, Upper East and Upper West Sides) with the same script. Each requested assistance with the question, "I'm planning to serve trout, what wine would you recommend?" A total of 44 "mystery shops" were conducted. Although this is a relatively small sample, the findings were very consistent, leading us to conclude that a larger sample would have yielded essentially the same findings.

Variables Each shopper employed the same shopping variables in terms of business attire, time of day (between 6pm-8pm), day of week (Mon-Thurs) and script. Each shopper was told to walk in, and browse for a few minutes before approaching the salesperson. Shoppers were instructed to ask for assistance (if not approached) for recommendation pairing wine with trout. The shopper was instructed not to provide any clues about their knowledge of wine. Each shopper was asked to give a one paragraph summary of their subjective experiences. These summaries follow:

White Male: "All the stores I visited gave me prompt and courteous attention, but the recommendations were inconsistent from store to store and often ill-informed. When I said I was having trout, one salesman suggested a heavy Italian red wine (Sangiovese) to pair with the trout, even after I said the trout would be prepared in a classic style. Although I do cook, on the few occasions when I was asked about the preparation, the salesmen assumed that my wife would be cooking. Few asked my price range, but most suggested wines between $15-25. To the extent that there was any pattern in the recommendations, it was to suggest French wine and to ignore American wines. I was told in 3 stores that what I wanted was Chablis, and one salesman explained that French Chablis is nothing like what I think Chablis is, because the same name is used on cheap California white wine. One shop did recommend California wine saying that 'French Sauvignon Blancs are too herbaceous' assuming I knew what that meant."

White Woman: "Most of the stores I visited gave me indifferent service, with a few exceptions. At most stores, I was treated with condescension and spoken down to. At one store, a salesman treated me with deference and spoke as if he thought I knew something about wine. But, for the most part, I found it hard to get attention. At one shop, my salesman was approached by a male customer while helping me. The salesman didn't excuse himself, but left me standing and I had to find him 5 minutes later in order to continue. He had forgotten what we were talking about. I told him he was showing me a bottle of Dashwood and couldn't find where he had put it. I eventually found it standing on a crowded counter.

Although I was dressed in a good business suit, carrying an leather briefcase, at one shop in the Village, after having to repeatedly ask for service, the salesman boorishly stated, "so your price range is around 9 bucks, right?" At another Village shop, I was offered a very expensive wine without the salesman asking me my price range. At another shop, when a salesman did approach and I asked him what he would recommend with trout, he said that what I wanted was a buttery chardonnay. However, as we walked toward the chardonnays, a more senior salesman overheard him and informed us that I should get something lighter. The second salesman recommended a St. Veran or Pouilly Fume, saying chardonnay had too much oak; the first salesman who had recommended chardonnay simply walked away. Overall, I was very put off by the lack of sensitivity, consistency, wine and food pairing knowledge and customer service."

Black Woman: "I was either ignored or treated with disdain. My overall impression was that of very condescending service. The salesmen didn't know or care if I had a clue about wine. They could have recommended anything to me. I was at their mercy for information. I went into shops with a simple request and was spoken to condescendingly, often being told 'this is what you want.' At one store, I was told definitively that a certain wine would be 'good for my t aste buds'. At another shop, while I was being assisted, an elderly white female customer interrupted us and the salesman answered her questions. He then had to excuse himself to go and give instructions to another salesman. I started to browse through the store while waiting and when he tried to relocate me he shouted out in the store 'where's my trout girl?'. At another shop, I was given a recommendation, but continued browsing and was followed around the store by a security guard.

"At yet another shop, the salesman insisted I get an inexpensive, heavy red Bordeaux, even though the placard description said 'this full-bodied wine is excellent with duck, goose etc.' When I protested that I was having a light trout dish, he became angry and said loudly, 'do you really think that that's all it's good with?' Most salesmen also assumed that I would be price sensitive. Especially at the Upper East side places, I was downsold. Although I was not often asked my price range, the wines offered me were usually under $10. The wines were French almost exclusively.

"I found generally that once I requested assistance, a recommendation would be made for French chardonnay or sauvingnon blanc. When I asked what chardonnay is or what's the difference between chardonnay or sauvignon blanc or what's better with trout, the salesmen often became exasperated. No one responded to me in the same simple manner as I asked and no one asked if I understood any of the terms. When I questioned one salesman as to why he thought a fruity wine is better than dry wine with trout, he became exasperated and walked away. At one very crowded shop, I was repeatedly ignored by the salesman whom I walked past and attempted to make eye contact with, until a young salesman shouted, 'anyone need help?' I said I did and when I asked for a recommendation for trout he grabbed the hand of an African American SALESWOMAN (the only woman I saw in all my 'shops') and said, 'this customer needs help'. She took the time to explain varietals to me and appeared happy to spend time with me."

Asian American Woman: "I was treated condescendingly or totally ignored at most of the shops I visited. At one store, when I asked for help, two salesmen joked around with each other before responding to me. Very few shoppers were in the store at the time. They acted very patronizing and told me that I 'want Alsatian Pinot blanc' and that 'people from Trinidad like that wine very much'. (Note: Shopper is Chinese American and ironically, the black woman shopper, who is originally from Trinidad, was offered a different wine at that shop.) I felt from the way they pointed at the wines rapidly that they were making fun of me. I felt patronized at this and most places. At another shop I went over to a salesman who told me 'you want a white French burgundy'. When I said about a California wine, the salesman said they over oak their wines. When I asked him to explain more about the oak, he said 'it's bad.' My experience was pretty unpleasant and while I really would like to learn more about wine, these stores certainly didn't help . So in order to learn more, I went to a wine tasting and spoke to a winemaker who told me that his wines go very well with Szechuan food! I was totally insulted and said 'I don't cook, what wines go with TV dinners?'"

Summary of Findings: Our expectation was that the women would get mediocre service and the male would receive superior service. Sadly, our expectations were met, indeed often with the worst case scenario.

  1. The white male got the best service; the white woman indifferent or condescending service; the Asian American woman was either was ignored or given patronizing and service and worst of all was the service received by the black woman, who was often followed around, shouted at and insulted (called "girl") .

    All the women were often "sold down"-- at least once for the white woman and several times for the Asian and black women.

  2. Even for the white man, recommendations were inconsistent and usually ill informed, although salesmen tripped over each other to reach him.

    1. Inconsistent recommendations were common among the four shoppers, even in the same store and with the same salesman.

    2. Recommendations were often totally off the wall--for example hearty, heavy reds were recommended for trout without explanation. Few salesmen took the time to ask about how the trout would be prepared, except with the white male.

    3. Francophilia rules in New York-- French wines are most often recommended, sometimes New Zealand wines, only rarely US wines. (Occasionally, without prompt, US wines were bashed).

    4. All of the women reported that their service was interrupted when a the salesman made eye contact with a white male, or a man barged in and began asking a question.

    5. Average amount of time to get service (except for white male) for shoppers ranged from 2-9 minutes.

Recommendations While women buy between 70 and 80% of all products, and some studies report that women buy 60% of wine nationally, but they don't appear to buy much wine at the retail level in New York. Given the experiences of the female shoppers, this is not surprising.

However, while few women buy wine, many are drinking, but wine is purchased or ordered for them. Therefore, there is a great need much more training for sales help at the retail level--not only diversity sensitivity training, but also much more wine training. (Taste is subjective but service should at least be uniform).

Women also are clearly not present behind the counter. In only two shops were saleswomen on the floor. But this lack of respect for women in the wine business cuts both ways. When a woman colleague (whose new store was not in the study) was attempting to serve a male customer, he told her he'd rather wait for her husband to serve her).

Only 11% of the population consumes 88% of the wine sold in this country. Wine makers, distributors, suppliers and retailers all say they want to increase the number of wine drinkers. Women and diverse consumers could be the key to increasing sales and profits. To achieve this goal, better retail serivce is critical.

*Please note that this is a summary of research findings.

Marlene Rossman is president of Rossman, Graham Associates, marketing and sales consultants for wine, spirits and consumer goods in New York City, and president of Women for WineSense, NY chapter. Her latest book is Multicultural Marketing: Selling to a Diverse America (AMACOM Publishers, 1994, 1996). For further information call (212) 533-5981 or send E-mail to

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