It’s no secret that millennials now make up the largest living generation and are quickly overtaking Generation X and baby boomers in terms of market share and purchasing power. We know that each of these generations has its own unique set of characteristics and preferences—but is this true when it comes to drinking wine?
As millennials age into their 20s and 30s, trends show their wine consumption is on the rise. USA Today highlighted a recent study done by the industry nonprofit Wine Market Council, which found that millennials drank 159.6 million cases of wine in 2015 alone—42 percent of all the wine consumed in the United States that year.
In my research examining what information sources millennials use to learn about wine and make restaurant wine purchasing decisions, it became very clear the market is ripe with opportunity for restaurants and service providers to understand what millennials want and tailor offerings accordingly.
As it turns out, millennials aren’t that different from other generations in this context, which is a good thing for service providers. There are some nuances, however, that can be evaluated to better understand what millennials want from their wine.
Not only do millennials enjoy dining out more frequently, but they want to be able to afford to do so. Ironically, they are the highest educated generation and have great potential for income, but many of them feel they’re poor. They entered the workforce during the economic downturn in the late 2000’s, which has left many with low-wage jobs, earning far less than their parents. With this in mind, it’s important to demonstrate value during restaurant service, both in the wine itself—why it’s worth purchasing a glass or a bottle at a higher cost than in a grocery store, for instance—and in the service provided.
It may come as a surprise that the Internet is not always the first source millennials consult to research wine and make purchasing decisions. In fact, friends and peers are the top sources of information. Experts, such as sommeliers, follow as a close second. Millennials are driven by word-of-mouth recommendations from people like themselves.
Millennials are also adventurous in their dining. They grew up with the development of the Food Network. Some enjoyed diverse experiences traveling with their boomer parents. Millennials undoubtedly crave authenticity. Yet, they are also attracted to eye-catching labels with interesting back-stories—and hard lessons are learned when they realize not all pretty labels indicate a quality wine.
In a restaurant setting, millennials must rely on other sources to make purchase decisions, compounding the sense of perceived risk. This provides an engaging server or sommelier the perfect opportunity to share the narrative behind the label millennials are drinking while educating them more about the varietal and wine culture as a whole.
More than anything, millennials desire fun and engaging wine-drinking experiences. As much as they love technology, they still appreciate traditional, yet unpretentious, table-side service and having a real conversation with their server or sommelier. And if the experience is positive, millennials are likely to share and recommend it to their friends.
Tips for restaurant businesses and hospitality service providers
There are several ways restaurants and service providers can leverage these insights to better serve their millennial customers and keep them coming back for more:
- Provide value. A great wine menu should offer a few affordable yet quality options so millennials can dine out as often as they want without breaking the bank. Allowing them to taste a wine before committing to it—even just a sip!—will also influence their purchasing behavior. Having a wine-by-the-glass program or an appropriately priced manager’s pick of the week may entice them even more.
- Educate them. Not only are these diners a captive audience, but they’re eager to learn. While serving them, take advantage of the opportunity to teach them what’s in the glass and what food items on the menu would pair well.
- Train servers and staff. Although hiring a sommelier or providing additional training for servers can be costly, it’s important to ensure the entire staff is knowledgeable about the food and wine and feels confident describing them and suggesting wine pairing options. This will help demonstrate value to customers and improve their overall satisfaction, while increasing the average check and thus bottom-line profits for the business.
The bottom line
Millennials bring a lot to the table. They present a significant opportunity for restaurants and service providers to get creative with customer experiences. Taking these nuances into consideration will not only drive more wine sales, but also will help servers and staff create engaging, memorable experiences for their millennial customers.
Dr. Rhonda Hammond is an assistant professor of hospitality business and wine business management in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. Dr. Hammond’s culinary arts background and wine research, particularly regarding millennials and underserved market segments, furthers her interest in defining the art of hospitality.