Just about every issue of The Wine Merchant includes some criticism of suppliers from their independent customers. Issue 29 is no different, except that for once we’ve given suppliers the chance to have their say about retailers.
It’s not a mere exercise in mud-raking. The relationship between importers and merchants is generally pretty strong, based on mutual respect and understanding. But that doesn’t mean suppliers don’t think some independents could do things better. Or that independents won’t benefit by listening to their concerns.
Our conversations with suppliers revealed some familiar bugbears: late payment, wine left cooking in windows, and unrealistic expectations about the level of supplier support. But one topic came up more than any of these niggles. There is a sense – particularly among the smaller suppliers – that independents just aren’t adventurous enough with their ranges.
As one supplier put it: independents should have more time for businesses that share their values, and which can offer wines with genuinely specialist characteristics. Too many retailers are playing it safe with wines that are found in large numbers across the UK, and not giving enough opportunity to lesser-known countries, regions, producers and varietals.
Is the criticism fair, or just the voice of self-interest? Many independents might agree there is some validity to the suppliers’ argument, but point out (as Richard Shama of Wine Bear does very well in the same issue) that, outside of London, the logistics of dealing with a large number of specialist suppliers are problematic to say the least. It explains why many independents put a lot of eggs in the same basket and choose to deal with a small number of relatively large importers.
The other point is that many merchants are delighted with the service they’re getting from the sector’s big names. At Liberty’s tasting in London last week, the room was teeming with independents. Boutinot’s event this week is likely to be similarly rammed.
The task for smaller, more niche suppliers is to convince independents that they have wines that will deliver sales. They also have to understand the independent mindset and develop, as far as possible, a flexible approach to order terms. It’s already happening, often at local level, as small suppliers forge profitable relationships with merchants in their area. It’s an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace – but one that has the potential to become even more varied and vibrant.