A £421m trade. Yes, some of that is cheese.

So how are independent wine retailers doing? What do they need from us? Do they prefer to ship direct or deal with UK suppliers? Is the internet a big deal for them? How many of them sell cheese?

These questions are asked with almost monotonous regularity. It’s not surprising that there should be so much interest in a sector that just keeps on growing, despite all the whispers that “these people really aren’t making any money” and “lots of them are going to have to close”.

Such dire predictionpage 1 april 2013s have been circulating for at least a decade, in which time the population of independent specialists has gone from below 500 to almost 700 now. True, the number of millionaires this has created is approximately zero, but that’s hardly the point. It is possible to make a living running a wine shop, especially if you have enough time and imagination to bolt on a few extras: some wholesaling perhaps, tasting events almost certainly, some specialist food retailing, an area for morning coffees, a regular wine school. (This list is by no means prescriptive, or exhaustive.)

The Wine Merchant has carried out its first reader survey and the results are published in the April edition. It is probably the widest-reaching survey of the sector, and it reveals much about the health of the independent wine trade.

The financial side of things is particularly revealing. The average turnover of an independent wine specialist is £864,553. If that sounds a little high, bear in mind this is the figure for the business as a whole, and that business may well have more than one shop. In fact we calculate there are 689 specialist wine shops in the UK, run by 487 operators. That’s about 1.4 shops per business.

In other words, each shop is turning over an average of £617,537 and the independent trade in its entirety is worth around £421 million.

The other findings in the survey, generously sponsored by our friends at Negociants UK, paint a picture of an independent trade that is bullish about the year ahead and adventurous with its wine range. But what also comes through, loud and clear, is that you can’t categorise all independents in the same way, convenient as that might be for suppliers, journalists and other market watchers.

We ought to know this already, simply by talking to independents themselves. For some, wholesaling to the local on-trade is the route to higher profitability; for others, such business is simply more trouble than it’s worth. Many independents are investing serious money in their websites, and believe online sales will become an increasingly vital part of the mix. Others have no plans to join the digital bunfight, and have not updated their home pages for a couple of years.

Do independents like to buy direct? Yes. Sometimes. In fact they’re doing more of it, except in cases where they’ve chosen to increase their reliance on UK shippers. Do they think they should offer delicatessen items? Yes. Except in cases where this looks like a lot of unnecessary hassle. Do they want to sell more British craft ale? Yes. A lot of them do. But for others, such diversions are irrelevant.

So generalisations about the independent sector are usually pointless and misleading, but let’s take stock of what we can say about them:

  • They’re in ruder health than we dared to believe
  • Their numbers have increased over just about every month of the past five years
  • They’re not going away.

It’s a part of the market characterised by eccentrics, optimists, mavericks, workaholics, dreamers, visionaries and free-thinkers. They have a lot in common, but they’re all different. It’s what makes them independent. The clue is in the name.

Graham Holter

Editor, Publisher, Economist of Sorts

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