About 15 years ago, I remember questioning a very knowledgeable man at Nielsen about the future of wine specialists. I’d become aware of a flurry of new openings: shops which offered high-end and quirky wines, entirely different to what was available in Threshers or even Oddbins, and certainly the supermarkets. It seemed, at least to me, an exciting development.
The knowledgeable man gave a little smile. Some of these shops would perhaps buck the trend, he conceded. But to do so they would need to embrace convenience. Stamps, newspapers, toilet rolls, Pot Noodles – that kind of thing. Pure wine specialism would not be enough to keep them afloat.
Those words of wisdom didn’t ring true then, and recent history has proved the theory wrong. Hundreds of specialist wine shops have sprung up, many are thriving, and very few of them sell toothpaste or ready meals.
But as Bill Rolfe points out in a thought-provoking column in the new edition of The Wine Merchant, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least consider broadening their specialism beyond wine. Rolfe’s own shop, The Market Square in East Grinstead, is a good example of how this can work.
It has its own mini bakery. It sells local cheeses. You can get some of your fruit and veg there. It also sells convenience foods. Yet the wine offer remains strong, and sits at the heart of the store’s proposition. “The trick is not to lose the specialist wine tag, but to build around it,” Rolfe explains.
For some independents, this business model will be a bridge too far. Many don’t have the space to do what The Market Square has done; others will fear being tagged as “generalists”, and meeting the same fate as Unwins and Threshers, both of which ended up in no man’s land with their wine ranges.
Yet Rolfe’s perspective is an interesting one. The model clearly works for him, and there’s no reason to suppose there’s anything particularly unique about East Grinstead. Why shouldn’t a wine shop also be a place where you can pick up some artisanal bread, or charcuterie? Why should lovers of craft ales or speciality spirits have to trek to a different shop to indulge their tastes? Is selling premium coffees and teas really so different to selling quality wines?
More and more independents (like Champion Wines, profiled in the same issue) are seeing the benefits of opening up delicatessen areas and using some of their space for on-premise sales. It doesn’t mean they’re selling less wine. They’re actually selling more.
They’re not becoming convenience stores, by any stretch of the imagination. But they are offering extras that their customers find convenient. It doesn’t seem like a controversial move.