Although first instances of the subscription-based business model date as far back as the early 20th century — think book clubs and daily milk bottle deliveries — the format in which we now know this direct-to-consumer retail trend took flight only over the last two decades. The beauty industry was one of the earliest adoptees into the universe of subscription boxes; the US-based Dollar Shave Club (which delivers razors and other personal grooming products to customers by mail) was so successful that, five years after its founding, it was acquired by Unilever for US$1 billion. Outside of beauty and grooming, the contents of subscription boxes include food, arts and crafts, fashion, books, and even spirits and wine.
While some of us know exactly how to pair fine wines with good meals, the aspect of wine subscription boxes that makes it so successful is that it takes the thinking out of the equation. Whether your go-to criteria is the “this label looks interesting” method or you just do not have time to really explore beyond your usual bottles, with so many amazing vintages on the market, it is easy for even the most dedicated oenophile to wind up overwhelmed or in a rut. Wine subscription boxes are designed to make life easier by picking out interesting bottles and delivering them directly to your doorstep. Enter the Klang Valley’s newest wine subscription box service, the cleverly named Pourdecisions.
It was not what Chin Hwei-Kim and her partner, Keon Wong, planned to do upon returning to Malaysia last year from Yangon, Myanmar, but as is the case with many good ideas, it came to them by accident. It was the peak of last year’s Movement Control Order (MCO), and the couple settled into their work-from-home arrangements by picking up the essentials at their neighbourhood grocers, which includes stocking up their wine rack. After a while, they began to tire of the limited vino selections at the supermarket. While going to speciality wine stores was an option, the idea of having new bottles come to them seemed like a wildly exciting prospect.
“We were at the point in our lives where we were ready to move on from supermarket-standard wines to something a little more sophisticated, but in a gradual way so that we didn’t break the bank in the process,” Chin says. “We did some research and found that there were a lot of people in our position as well. Some people take their wines very seriously, and that can be intimidating to others just starting out or wanting to expand their palate. A subscription box model takes the guesswork out of things by providing only good-quality wines and also makes the entire experience both enjoyable and educational.”
The success of the subscription box model speaks of the profound effect the direct-to-consumer model has on the retail industry — there is something exhilarating about the surprise, but also, the possibility to educate and inspire with each delivery. Pourdecisions’ boxes are delivered monthly and, for RM270 each, subscribers get three bottles — a white, a red and a surprise pick that changes each month. This could be anything from a rosé, a bubbly prosecco or even an experimental wine made from lab-grown grapes — bottles that if you were to spot on a shop shelf, you might not be convinced to try. “While we do think wine is a serious business, we wanted to have a bit of fun with it as well,” Wong says. “This wild card bottle really lets us do that.”
Chin and Wong relied on their network of contacts to build a relationship with suppliers and distributors for the wines, and decide on monthly themes based on stock they know is coming. Although competition is not quite an issue for Pourdecisions, as there are not too many other wine subscriptions boxes in Kuala Lumpur at the moment, its monthly themes are definitely a unique aspect.
“The themes aren’t easy to come up with; it requires some real creative thinking,” Chin quips. “We were very clear about not grouping it geographically, which to us felt a bit dull. Themes we have done in the past include coastal wines and high-altitude wines. We sometimes take inspiration from happenings in the year. So, January was organic to mark a fresh start to the year; June was native wines to celebrate Hari Gawai; and August was blended wines in conjunction with Merdeka celebrations. Retailers and importers know what we like and tell us what they expect to receive — and, I have to say, we have really knowledgeable people here in KL — which also helps a lot in getting the themes going for each month’s box.”
Pourdecisions may have been launched at a time when consumers could not go to their favourite bars to enjoy a nice glass of wine, but Chin does not think present restaurant reopenings will affect their business all that much. “Each box contains only three bottles anyway, which is just three nights in — the remaining 27 nights every month can be spent out lah,” Wong quips.
“People now appreciate that a curated selection of wines is being delivered to them, which means they don’t have to go to a wine shop and choose a bottle,” Chin says. “And, it comes every month; so, even if they forget to pick some up, the stock will definitely be there. I do believe that the MCO-enforced habit of staying and entertaining at home will last well after the pandemic is over. So, no, I don’t see our model being impacted very much.”
Chin and Wong have already broken even with Pourdecisions, as their initial investment was quite small and they do not hold on to stock — whatever they do not sell in the box, they drink.
What poses a challenge right now is the future — Pourdecisions has a base of 200 subscribers, which is increasing each month. “We need to grow in order to afford help, but to afford help, we need to grow — it’s a bit of a tough situation we are in right now,” Wong says. “We are hoping for some additional investment to give us a bit of a boost, so the ideas in our head can translate into reality. We’ve been involved in some great collaborations with other small KL-based businesses, and understanding that we all have our own skill sets, I’d say the focus is for us to stick to what we do best for now. Pop-up events are something we have in mind for the future, but the subscription model will always be the core of what we do.”
A year after starting the business, Chin and Wong are proud of what they have achieved together and look forward to the continuous learning process that their entrepreneurial journey will bring. “This is something we have really enjoyed building from the ground up,” Chin smiles. “We are committed to doing everything we can to keep it going.”
This article first appeared on Oct 18, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.