Look Over Here!: Shelf Talkers – are they screaming at us or for us?

My friend used to produce obnoxious car commercials; the ones with hyper, macho music and the screeching guy who sounded constipated. Although it pained this budding artist to squander his creativity on annoying 30-second radio spots, the commercials apparently sold cars. Just like the little annoying “shelf talkers” at wine shops – those tags that hang off the display shelves that scream ratings, descriptions and other tidbits of often useless info. They apparently sell wine, too. I spoke with several consumers who confessed their weakness for shelf talkers. Asking if these little marketing tags ever influenced a purchase, I got replies like, “Yes, I’m a sucker for those,” and “Absofuckinlutely, I rely on them to expand my horizons. Tags have caused me to spend money I would not have otherwise… I do not always agree with what the tags said after tasting the wine, but mostly I feel it was a good decision to buy.”

Another consumer, a more skeptical one, said: “Yes, they have [influenced me]. This was especially the case when I was first developing a taste for wine. My feelings might be more mixed in this regard now, after seeing Mondovino [a controversial wine biz movie out in indie theaters now]. I’m somewhat suspect of wine critics.”

The most ubiquitous shelf talkers come from the national magazines, like Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, and list ratings on a scale of 1-100. But one really cool option is stores that create their own shelf talkers or “Staff Picks.” Ansley Wine Merchants in Atlanta has been using these for years, and, unlike the stuffy wine mags, its talkers are comedians.

Comments like “Staff Favorite… means we drank a lot of it” engage customers rather than confuse them. Debbie Fraker at Ansley says, “Shelf talkers are there for when we’re not… they work well for shy or busy people,” who don’t want to be bothered with sales staff. Gina Cook at Sherlock’s in Atlanta agrees. Their Staff Picks create a relationship with a customer, allowing that person to identify a local staffer with similar tastebuds. “It’s all about the relationship,” she says. “Wine has to be the right fit.”

Forty percent of Sherlock’s wines have shelf talker help, but at B-21 in Tampa Bay, 65-75 percent of its inventory has a descriptor tag. Rhett Beiletti, wine consultant at B-21, considers it the store’s duty to provide enough information for a customer to decide on a wine, in order to create a comfort level with the buying process.

And the tags provide a qualified outside source to back up a salesperson’s opinion. In addition to monthly Staff Picks, salespeople scour the Internet to find several informational sources even from esoteric publications such as Beverage Dynamics (a trade mag I don’t even read). The effort creates a veritable encyclopedia of wine-buying info.

Still, most wine drinkers agree that nothing replaces the face-to-face experience at a shop. Shelf Talkers do their job at a grocery store or large wine retailer where you may not get enough attention, but consumers still prefer the intimate contact with a friendly, knowledgeable sales person. Gina Cook remembers being asked, “I haven’t met Robert Parker, how do I know I’m going to like this wine?”

Enough said.


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