Studying history, they say, prepares you for life. So when I was told at university that 18th century Britain pretty much invented sales tactics and classics such as the shop window, that should have prepared me for what I experienced when moving to the UK: Seasonal sale, mid-season sale, in-between season sale and all sorts of promotions started to dominate my life.
Even my local supermarket does them all the time and I do constantly have to face signs offering 40% off on a certain wine. £4.99 instead of £9.99? Sounds tempting - unless you know that the wine may only be worth £4.49, with the price artificially doubled so that it can be sold to you as a 'really good deal'. In an article on discount wine, the Guardian explains how this all works:
One wine importer, who asked to remain nameless for obvious reasons, is more open still: "I often find myself touting a £7.99 wine that will actually sell mainly at £3.99. The idea is that people will believe it might really be worth something in between those two prices - perhaps £5.99. It's not. It's worth £3.99 and not a penny more." In other words, anyone who pays full price for it is being very badly ripped off.
Most wine in Britain is sold through supermarkets these days, so these promotions can have a huge impact. It gets even more interesting if you consider that some wine makers pay for having their wines sold or featured in supermarkets - and that is something that the smaller wineries simply cannot do.
The article emphasizes that it is the customer who is the driving force behind some of these developments. If you want your wine as cheap as possible you cannot really complain if supermarkets buy wine through internet auction based solely on price, without even tasting the wine. Allan Cheesman, who ran Sainsburys' wine department for more than twenty years, is cited with the following comment on this practice:
It's like eBay. They buy on price - and then taste the top three or four afterwards. And you get sugar-water. Most supermarkets have these auctions for many products, not just wine. Much is made about supplier relationships, but the truth is, they're about as good as the last contract. If it's cheaper to bottle their own-label claret in Weston-super-Mare than in Bordeaux, they'll do it.
Strangely it seems that customers do actually want promotions, even if you would think that a clear price that indicates what the wine is actually worth (as far as the market is capable of doing that) should be in their interest. ASDA (owned by Walmart and hence a company more than suspect of using every evil marketing trick) actually experimented with an everyday low price strategy instead of promotions, but customers wanted the feeling of getting something they otherwise would not have. Customers also, it is alleged, enjoy being directed towards certain wines as they find it very difficult to chose.
With my training in 18th century British history, I have so far resisted most wine promotions in supermarkets. I cannot really recommend a good strategy for finding wines you like in a UK supermarket, apart from just trying different things. What has worked well for me so far though is going for South American wine such as Argentinian Malbec and Pinot Noir from Chile. Have a look at Cono Sur, for instance. A friend tried some of their whites and I had a nice experience with their Pinot Noir a while ago. Or, alternatively, just order some wine from Germany - if you are prepared to pay around £8 per bottle you can get something really nice delivered to your door directly from the winery.