Adapt and survive

Like hundreds of independent merchants, Tivoli Wines in Cheltenham experienced a tidal wave of orders in the early weeks of lockdown.

But where were these orders coming from? Who were these new customers, and were they different from the regulars that the team was used to meeting and greeting? Could they be persuaded the stick around once Covid-19 was in retreat?

Owner David Dodd describes how the business changed its own buying behaviour as a response to the pandemic – and assesses whether his strategy has paid off

david dodd

As I sat in the shop an hour after Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement, boxing up stock for what I believed would be a lengthy period of inactivity, I could hear my phone beeping away in my pocket.

I ignored it, putting it down to the over-excitement of a group of friends exchanging messages on Whatsapp or my wife informing me that our 12-month-old had woken up for the fifth time in an hour.

At around midnight, as I was locking up, I glanced at my phone. What I saw surprised, excited and terrified me in equal measure. It wasn’t text messages coming in. It was the notification of online orders – more than we’d ever had in a single day.

Like many small independents, the majority of our sales, around 95%, are derived from our bricks-and-mortar channel and, even though we developed an e-commerce website back in 2018, we viewed it primarily as a window to promote our hybrid business model.

I was quite happy with our website, but it had suffered from months of neglect as we focused our investment on growing the more profitable aspects of our business, particularly the wine experience side.

As rumours of a forced closure of retail circulated, it hadn’t crossed my mind that the website would become our life support. We felt re-energised; we had a form of income flowing into the business.

But as the orders stacked up over the next 36 hours, I became less excited and more terrified at the opportunity presented to us.

Read the article in full here

Our entry-level wines aren’t cheap options for most drinkers

Right, let’s see who’s been paying attention. What’s the average selling price of a bottle of still wine in the specialist independent trade?

If your answer is £13.71, you’ve either made a very educated guess, or possibly you’re looking at page 27 of our March edition, where we reported that exact number as part of our reader survey coverage. The figure has been steadily rising since 2017, when it stood at £11.62. The average for the off-trade as a whole – which is, as we know, dominated by supermarkets – is just £5.93.

Imagine if we asked those 179 respondents that same question today, based on the trade they’ve done over the past two months. What would their average be now? Below £13, almost certainly. Below £12? Below the £11.62 of three years ago? Below £10?

When the panic buying began in supermarkets, independents found themselves catering for a new kind of customer – one that has been trained to think that decent wine costs £5.93. They’d be lucky to find anything at that price – even the scruffiest bin-end – in a specialist shop. We may think of £9 or £10 as entry-level, but for vast swathes of the wine-drinking public, that’s 50% or 60% more than they’re used to spending.

The big question being asked by all indies right now is just how many of these new customers will stick around once life gets back to some kind of normality. The answer will depend in part on how much value the Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s refugees have found in the sub-£10 wines they’ve bought from their local merchant.

A number of suppliers are dismayed at the way their independent customers have pandered to the new wave of low spenders. “What about us?” they ask. “Are you going to delist our £15 wines – and risk your reputation as destination retailers – purely to hoover up some short-term volume?”

For many indies, the situation doesn’t have to be quite as polarised as that. This pandemic is giving the trade the opportunity to carry out a unique experiment: to see how much broader its customer base can become if price points start slightly lower than we’re used to. For many, the early results are exciting.

The strategy only really starts to hit problems if the £9 wines are no better than the £6 alternatives in Asda, or if the merchant starts to make reckless decisions about listings further up the quality and price ladder.

These are modern-day wine retailing skills. Specialists have to sell special wines – whatever the price point.

Why Covid-19 could go ballistic at wine tastings

trade tasting

Event organisers are hopeful that at least some tastings will take place as normal this autumn. But these ritual trade gatherings have the potential to become superspreader events for coronavirus. Report by Graham Holter

 

If you could somehow be parachuted into a London trade tasting tomorrow – taking public transport out of the equation – would you be tempted to go?

Little by little, it seems likely that the country will become less locked down, and a degree of normality will return to our work and life routines. The suggestion among various academics and commentators is that we may not be able to eliminate Covid-19, at least not yet, so we’ll just have to find ways of living side by side. Minimise risks, take sensible precautions, and avoid that dreaded second (and maybe third) wave of infection.

Scientific understanding of Covid-19 transmission is evolving all the time, and it’s possible that the picture may look very different by the time the autumn sipping and spitting season gets under way. But as things stand, wine tastings don’t look like a great idea.


A recent article published by Canadian science writer Jonathan Kay, in the journal Quillette, analysed so-called superspreader events (SSEs) in 28 countries. He was looking for patterns in the way large outbreaks of Covid-19 occur, and he certainly managed to find them.

It turned out that 70% of the SSEs included in the research involved one or more of the following activities: religious services or missionary work; parties and celebrations; funerals; and business networking.

Kay notes that all these occasions “seem to have involved the same type of behaviour: extended, close-range, face-to-face conversation – typically in crowded, socially animated spaces”.

Most of the events – just like wine tastings – took place indoors, with limited ventilation. Many involved the kind of embracing and cheek-pecking that’s part and parcel of so many wine trade gatherings.

Kay goes on: “High levels of noise do seem to be a common feature of SSEs, as such environments force conversationalists to speak at extremely close range.

“Three of the SSEs involved mass sports spectacles, during which fans regularly rain saliva in all directions as they communally celebrate or commiserate in response to each turn of fortune.” Perhaps the wine trade equivalent is the spittoon splashback moment. Or the slightly shouty exchanges between pourer and taster in boisterous, echoey rooms.


There are various ways in which the Covid-19 virus is thought to spread. The most important, according to Kay’s article, is the transmission of large “Flügge” droplets via coughing, sneezing and loud speaking.

Smaller droplets can travel long distances as aerosols, and their impact is not yet wholly understood. Then there are the contaminated surfaces – known as fomites – which have also been implicated.

Kay claims no expertise as an epidemiologist and acknowledges the limitations of his study.

“But even a layperson can see that there is a fairly clear pattern in the most notorious, destructive, and widely reported cases of mass Covid-19 infection,” he says, “virtually all of which feature forms of human behaviour that permit the direct ballistic delivery of a large-droplet Flüggian payload from face A to face B.

“If fomites were a major pathway for Covid-19 infection outside of hospitals, old-age residences, and homes, one would expect restaurant cooks, mass-transit ticket handlers, and FedEx delivery workers to be at the centre of major clusters. They’re not.

“If small-droplet airborne concentrations in unventilated spaces were a common vector for Covid-19 transmission (as with measles, for instance), one would expect whole office buildings to become mass-infection hot spots. That doesn’t seem to have happened.”


Trisha GreenhalghKay’s article may be based on limited data and his conclusions can certainly be challenged and debated. But his argument was sufficiently well reasoned to be re-tweeted by Trisha Greenhalgh (pictured), professor of primary care at Oxford University, whose observations on the coronavirus pandemic have become required daily reading for many.

If Kay is right – and if Covid-19 is going to remain an inconvenient fact of life for the foreseeable future – then it would seem reckless for anyone to enter an environment in which almost everyone is spitting, bodies are funnelled together, voices are raised and glasses may be accidentally shared.

Compulsory face masks might solve part of the clinical problem, while creating other, more practical, difficulties for attendees. We’re meant to be sniffing and slurping, after all. And, on top of all that, there’s another concern to factor in. As far as we know, the technology does not yet exist to circumvent the wine trade’s alarming predilection for man-hugs and double kisses.

More like normal

As shops gradually reopen, merchants need to decide how best to protect their staff and their customers

 

There is, finally, some light at the end of the tunnel. At some point, the country is going to start coming out of lockdown, one step at a time.

Wine merchants are, of course, legally entitled to open already. The government classes them as essential service providers.

21069843_web1_200325-PQN-Social-distancing-signs-COVID_1Many – indeed probably the majority – have been nervous about allowing customers on to their premises, preferring to focus efforts on deliveries and collections. But as other types of shops start to resume conventional trading, more wine retailers will consider following suit.

We should bear in mind that Covid-19 is far from beaten and there are serious risks for retailers to consider.

Social distancing: For many wine shops, maintaining a two-metre distance between customers, and staff, is tricky. Marking out a grid system has worked for some larger stores; a one in, one out policy may be more practical.

Touching the merchandise: It’s not ideal for customers to handle bottles, but it’s a habit that has long been encouraged, especially when so much of the information about a wine is found on the back label. Merchants have reported that signage asking customers to refrain from touching stock they don’t intend to buy is (like a lot of Covid-related signange) frequently ignored.

Issuing disposable gloves for staff and offering hand sanitiser on the counter are reasonably straightforward steps to take. The benefits of wearing masks are gradually becoming more understood by the public – maybe retailers should take the lead.

Perspex screens would make many servers feel more protected, though how much practical use they would be in an open-plan store is open to question. Gavin Deaville of Handford Wines in London has a suggestion: “We’re considering various possibilities when we reopen. One is to move the layout of our shop so it’s more like the well-known spirits specialist Gerrys in Soho. They have a small area at the front for customers and the vast majority of the stock behind the shop counter.

“An alternative for those with small shops would be to pull a table in front of the front door so that no customer comes into the shop. It helps by reintroducing the customer interaction while still keeping a physical distance. But processing payments may be the Achilles heel.” So might the British weather.

There are some big challenges ahead for a trade that usually prides itself on its touchy-feely approach, sampling of the product, and communal experiences. But imaginative retailers will find a way through. Please share your ideas over the coming weeks and tell us what works, and what doesn’t.

Reward your community heroes

ThankYouForBeingALocalCOVID19Hero-Roundel

Every community in the land is facing extraordinary challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic. And in each of those communities there are people who are working tirelessly to keep vulnerable people safe, reassured and connected.

The Wine Merchant has teamed up with Hatch Mansfield to offer a small thank-you to these COVID-19 Heroes. We’ll be sending two cases of premium quality wines to 20 independents across the UK, to be presented to anyone in their communities whose efforts deserve a little reward.

The cases contain six bottles of Vidal Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and six of Errazuriz Wild Ferment Pinot Noir from Chile.

It’s up to each merchant to decide how to allocate the wines. You might want to offer 12 bottles individually, or to split into six pairs.

Your local COVID-19 Heroes can be anyone you think deserves a thank-you for the amazing work they are doing in this current crisis. They could be frontline NHS workers or maybe someone who is running errands for people in your community – or even getting creative making PPE.

Hatch will also send out 12 gift cards that you can use with the wines to say a personal thank-you.

The 20 cases will be shared out as fairly as possible, so that we cover as much of the UK as we can. If you’d like to nominate yourself as one of our partners in this project, email graham@winemerchantmag.com before April 30 and we’ll announce our 20 participating merchants in the first week of May.

You don’t need to tell us anything at this stage about who you’ve got in mind as your COVID-19 Heroes. We know that there will be deserving candidates everywhere.

Once the wine has been received, you’re welcome to use social media or any other platform to generate some local publicity – do copy us in as we’d love to give you a mention. And do send us any pictures and stories which we will share in a future edition. But equally, if you prefer to present the wines in a more low-key way, that’s absolutely fine too.

These are testing times for all of us, and independent traders are playing a key role at the heart of their communities. We hope our COVID-19 Heroes project helps to consolidate that position – and recognises some of the people whose dedication and kindness can sometimes go under the radar.