When I heard that there was to be an investigation into wine retailers’ shelf placements, I got rather excited. But sadly, I find that it will all be about the possible skullduggery behind the choice of wines on supermarket shelves. The issues of shelf placement which concern me are somewhat different, however; for while I have no knowledge of how wines get on to the shelves, I do have some considerable experience in taking them off.
It’s now become accepted, for example, that the cheaper wines in supermarkets are placed on shelves as close as possible to the floor, so that in order to look at the labels, bargain-hunters have to squat on their haunches like simians.
Older customers groan as they hunker down to the lowest shelf, while even paupers baulk at kneeling in the spillage in aisle five. And women are forced to adopt what I believe is known in birthing circles as The Squatting Position of the Tonkawas.
Now, if we’re talking about skullduggery, why is this? Could it possibly be deliberate that spending less is made as physically difficult and unappealing as possible?
(The idea of putting the better stuff higher up is presumably derived from the notion that people will make an extra effort, when driven by desire and passion, to access products like good wine. Or porn.)
And then there is the selection destined for the Fine Wine shelving. In my own supermarket, this involves a tawdry wood-effect veneer cabinet which, along with a graphic of a bunch of grapes, actually says “Fine Wine” – whereas it might more accurately display a bunch of coins and say “Anything over a tenner”.
These more expensive wines in a supermarket are often stored horizontally, trading upon a folk knowledge that good wine should be stored flat. I doubt whether many shoppers could tell you why wine should be laid flat; to them, like a wine waiter offering forth a bottle for perusal, it simply suggests a touch of class.
And of course, most supermarket wines might just as well stand upright. They’re not going to age; most of them will be sold within a day or so; and the majority of them don’t even have corks.
Yet in one posh supermarket chain, they actually have a sort of presentation plinth, on which expensive and predominantly New World wines are segregated and laid out like the spokes of a wheel. It’s saying yes, these do come from places like Australia, and most of them have screwcaps, but we’re presenting them laid flat, so you should take them seriously.
Sure enough, many people now associate wine shelved horizontally with aspirational living. This is why kitchen manufacturers will fill up any space too small for an actual kitchen cabinet with a teensy little built-in wine rack. Here’s one in a kitchen corner, cleverly planned to take five bottles when wine comes in sixes. See how horizontal wine storage suggests a modern, classy lifestyle, along with your pastel kettle and Cath Kidston accessories? And how the top bottle is so classy, you will have to stand on one of your fashionably mismatched chairs in order to reach it?
Well, here is a word in the shell-like of Messrs Magnet; if a wine is good enough to benefit from being laid on its side, it is good enough not to shelve in the heat of the kitchen. Yes, it is a pain for me to go down to the cellar to retrieve a bottle, but less of a pain than finding my claret has been cooked in the steam from the sink.
It all reminds me of those little cradles in which posh restaurants used to lay expensive bottles of wine. Ostensibly, to keep them relatively horizontal and avoid pouring out sediment. And, coincidentally of course, to tell people at adjoining tables, who were drinking from ordinary, upright bottles of wine, that here was someone who had spent more than them.
Posh wine merchants have learnt from all this when it comes to the placement of their own bargains. Show ‘em low, show ‘em flat. In fact, forget shelves, put the bottles in open wooden cases on the floor. They’re selling so fast, we haven’t even got time to take them out of their boxes! Of course, wooden cases plus horizontal storage suggests undeniably classy wine. And like the prices, the cases are so low, they’re on the floor itself, even closer to the ground than the lowest supermarket shelf. Bargain!
Someone once asked me where to look for wine bargains. My answer still, I think, remains valid. Thanks to shelf placement, I was able to answer in a single word.