Good Thinking

The Electronic sommelier

The Electronic sommelier
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September 30, 2005 As the world’s wine consumption increases, the supply of staff capable of offering knowledgeable advice on wine matters at the point of sale has fallen well behind demand. That was what inspired the creation of the wine expert – kiosk-based sommelier software with a simple interface that assists customers in choosing the most suitable wine for an occassion. Customers can search the stock of the store by characteristic (sweetness, dryness, etc), country and region of origin, price category, grape variety or by specifying the type of food you intend to consume with it and having the wine expert suggest the most complementary vino. Developed through extensive field trials, the service can be implemented painlessly by the sales outlet as it requires no maintenance and monitors the store’s ordering of wine and electronically updates the kiosk each night with tasting notes, food matches and recipe ideas – even awards and recommendations – for every wine in stock. Now if you think that’s clever, there’s also a version that runs on a wireless tablet and functions as a winelist for restaurants – so instead of looking at a list of wine names, the customer can make intelligent decisions about wine choice with all the information.

When a customer enters the store, they can put any bottle of wine in front of the kiosk’s scanner and it will produce notes on the wine – great for rummaging the odds and ends bin and for discovering new wines based on recommendations and store specials.

As you’d expect from a product such as this, insider knowledge was required to recognise the need for the product and then finance and create the software and service to complement rather than reengineer the procedures of a wine sales store or department in a supermarket.

Founder Denis Callahan, spent several decades in the hospitality industry, running, restaurants, hotels, bottle shops and wine stores and recognised the need to electronically augment staff knowledge many years ago. The ability to create the program came about because Lindy Callahan, Denis’ wife, is an IT professional and as the idea for the program became reality, Lindy became the full-time IT director of the company.

The first prototype evolved over three years and trials in several countries have now led to the current robust platform and implementation.

“When we studied the methods used by people to buy wine we found most choose by grape variety, the region it comes from, whether there are awards on the bottle, whether the label is attractive, if it is a well-known brand, or a combination of these methods,” said Callahan.

“The Wine Expert caters to these people – the 90 percent of the wine-drinking population. Of the rest, five percent consider themselves experts so they won’t listen to anyone else, and five percent will always buy on price alone.

“But for the 90 per cent who have some knowledge, there’s a great hunger to learn more about wine. We’ve tried to empower these people to become wine experts through this concept, and to demystify the wine world,” Mr Callahan said.

“It has proven to be a valuable resource for restaurants, who often employ students or young waiters and waitresses who really can’t help much in choosing a wine. Now we’re finding that supermarkets that have large wine departments are seeking the service too – their staff just plain don’t know about wine and their staff priorities are either manning the checkouts or replenishing shelves rather than advising customers.

“Sometimes they use printed cards stuck on the shelves as sales aids but the system often falls down to poor merchandiser knowledge. In the end, the wine expert offers better service because it knows every wine in stock, and has everything you might need to know available through a really simple interface.

“And as we’ve found in the trials and initial implementations of the product, the additional knowledge is really welcomed by the customer and sales volumes and floor traffic increase. Sometimes it might be the wine expert who wants to see the tasting notes on a wine he hasn’t seen before, sometimes its someone who wants to know exactly the characteristics of the wine he’s talking to dinner, and sometimes it’s just basic insurance so a wine novice doesn’t go to a dinner party and hear someone say 'why did you bring that?’” For those people building a wine cellar or wanting to educate themselves, there’s even the facility to email the notes on the particular bottle you’ve just purchased straight from the kiosk to home. And there’s a loyalty club module which can offer to add the customer’s email to a database to inform them of specials and wine tastings, and other relationship management events.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the wine expert is that it originated in Australia but the demand has been so strong from overseas countries that it is already spreading internationally before it has really become established in its homeland. It seems the need to offer better knowledge, advice and customer service in wine stores is a universal problem.

The company is also trialling the concept in Japan – complete with a database of rice wines. International enquiries should be directed to Denis and more information can also be found at the Wine Expert web site.

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