We’ve just had the best two weeks of business outside of Christmas, for all the wrong reasons. Our shelves look like something out of Russia in the 1970s – apart from the super premium reds and whites, of course. Stockpiling always covers the essentials, never the treats.
Gav’s gone into self-isolation because his girlfriend has terrible asthma and I’m exhausted from making up everything as I go along. And from him asking what the plan is for the future. How the hell do I know? I don’t even know if I’ll still be in business in a few months’ time. Or indeed if some of my suppliers will still be going.
We stopped the drink-in offering before the government announcement, as Gav got uncomfortable at how crowded it was suddenly getting. We went from a handful of occupied tables due to Dry January, and then Lent, to the last chance saloon. Lucrative though it was, I just couldn’t manage it on my own. Though I am telling a better, more responsible-sounding story to my virtue-signalling, #stayathome hashtag-loving friends. Something about staff and customer safety …
As I write this, we are now doing delivery only. Again, I am sounding responsible in how I tell it, but I needed a bloody big nudge to get here: several customers calling up saying they wanted to support me but didn’t want to shop in crowded spaces, where all sorts of people were handling the bottles. I tried to restrict the number of customers coming in at any one time, and then tried to keep them from touching the wares. But for all those voicing concerns, there were plenty of others who just acted like social distancing and hygiene didn’t apply to them. Then Mr M started nagging me about taking precautions, not something he has said in a long, long time.
So now I am taking bespoke orders by phone and email and have hastily slapped together a version of my long-planned-but-never-quite-happened online shop, including some mixed cases. Needless to say, unlike loo roll, people are not repeat stockpiling wine. But the orders are steady. We deliver in time for the weekend and – unlike Deliveroo or Uber Eats – we get to keep all our margin. I am, in fact, rather moved by how many people have come out of the woodwork in support of their local independent wine merchant. And how many people are understanding when you don’t have their favourite wine in stock because you are limiting how much you buy. If only running an independent wine shop could always be like this. Without, of course, the deadly virus.
March 22, 2020
I don’t import wine. So am I a fraud if I describe myself as a merchant?
Apparently, I cannot call myself a wine merchant because I don’t import any wine. This is according to a fellow trader, featured not so long ago in this publication, who brings in most of his wine. I suppose if you look at the true definition of the word “merchant” he has a point. I don’t trade with foreign businesses directly on a wholesale basis. But neither, I imagine, do many of the 916 specialist independent shops who receive The Wine Merchant magazine. However, before we all switch our allegiances over to Drinks Retailing News, let’s ponder this for a minute.
If I am not a wine merchant, then what am I? Off-licence sounds so pedestrian these days. It smacks of booze, fags and crisps joints on corners in the more down-at-heel parts of town, where you pop in to stock up on cheap Chilean Merlot and big-brand vodka at 10.30pm. Whose owners buy from a couple of mega distributors and the rest from cash-and-carry. You won’t find them discussing terroir anytime soon. There’s a reason Off Licence News changed its name.
Independent Specialist Wine Retailer sounds a lot better, and more accurately reflects my business. I may also be a re-seller using intermediaries for stock, but my proposition is entirely different. I do indeed have a cheap Chilean Merlot, but this has been curated – I’ve selected it from a slew of samples called in from a number of suppliers, and my palate is still barely talking to me.
I work with a lot of suppliers, many of them quite small, so I can select an exciting and diverse range – while still remaining accessible to those who want cheap Chilean Merlot. I know a fair few of my winemakers and have visited their vineyards – without having to tie up thousands of pounds in unsold stock. While I’ve dabbled in a little ex-cellar purchases, I let my suppliers take most of the strain, thank you. I don’t sell fags or cigars, nor do I sell cheap spirits, and my snacks are definitely a cut above – chicharróns and garlic-stuffed olives, if you please. I could go on, but I can see many of you nodding in agreement as I write this. Maybe not at the snacks – but at how we run our businesses.
There’s a snag to the term Independent Specialist Wine Retailer though, isn’t there? It’s wordy. No one is ever going to use this term when they introduce you at a party. Merchant is just so much easier to say.
Soon, however, I may not have to use the term fraudulently. I’ve been chatting with another couple of wine retailers I met on a trip about bringing in some wines together as an informal buying group. I look forward to the day when I, too, can say anyone who doesn’t do that is not really a wine merchant.
YouTube if you want to. The lady’s not for turning down a chance to face the cameras
Hi Adeline, remember me?” comes the email from a young somm who I met on a trip to Bulgaria last year. Oh I do, I do. And the lousy two-day hangover that followed as I’d tried to keep up.
“I wondered if you’d like to be on my next MUST Drink programme on YouTube. We’ll be looking at Bulgarian wine. I remember you had lots of great opinions.”
Flattered, I say yes before I even check out the format of MUST Drink. Or if anyone actually watches it. I tell Gav, who rather sniffily informs me that online is where it’s at these days for wine coverage. Merchants who still moan about lack of wine on mainstream TV are out of touch. Who cares about Saturday Kitchen and its obsession with mass-produced cheap plonk? A smaller but more engaged audience is more valuable these days.
I click onto Tom the somm’s channel on YouTube and notice that the audience is not just small, it’s minuscule – and that’s after two years of sharing content. I also notice a very engaged viewer making a comment after every MUST Drink episode. Gav. No wonder he was a bit peeved.
“Who is MUST Drink aimed at?” I ask Tom as we sit around a table in a private room at the central London restaurant where he works. “The modern, engaged wine drinker who is more interested in provenance than points,” he trots out. That rules out many of my customers, then, and includes a good number the trade who, you could argue, are already quite engaged.
Two other people appear: a specialist importer in Bulgarian wine, Anton and a blogger, Rachel, who recently self-published a book on Bulgarian wine called Thrace Yourself. To help our panel keep discussions flowing, we have a line-up of wines to taste – some international varieties, Mavrud in different styles and a couple of obscurities Anton has brought in from his personal cellar.
Recording begins and Anton and Rachel vie to prove who knows most about the history of Bulgarian wine, while Tom and I chat over how to pitch Bulgarian wines to our different customers while we all slurp and spit on camera. Before we know it, an hour has slipped by and we still have SO much to say.
Three weeks later, Tom sends a surprisingly brief email informing me that the Bulgarian episode is now online. After work, I sit down with Mr Mangevine to watch. After 10 minutes, Mr M bails. Apparently, the history bit was interesting but all that slurping and spitting was not just tedious, it was quite off-putting. I carry on watching for the full 30 minutes and realise I barely say a thing. I have been edited heavily, and am reduced to the odd “hmmm”, “yes” and “I agree”. So much for my great opinions. When I finish watching, I notice someone has commented below. It’s Gav. “Best episode yet.”
Rewarding loyalty to make our customers feel like royalty (at the right price)
He stops me just as I leave the shop to grab a coffee and, with a smile, says: “I got all my Christmas wines at Lidl this year.” He’s never been into the shop, but I know who his is – a rather smug older gentleman who likes to boast to his friends about the charming independent spirit of his local area.
I should have just said “happy new year”. People like that are really not worth bothering about, and one of my resolutions for 2020 is not to let this sort of stuff get under my skin. But it does. So I snap back: “When we close down, at least you’ll know why,” and stomp off.
It’s a stupid response. Don’t feed the trolls, Adeline! Focus on all the customers who did choose to buy wines from you in December.
But an independent wine shop is not just for Christmas or gifts, is it? (Take note, certain newspaper wine columnists.) People don’t have to remortgage to support us. Grumpy old man certainly doesn’t. I know how much his house is worth.
Perhaps, then, it’s high time I rewarded those who spend with us all year round.
I’ve toyed with the idea of a loyalty programme but have always struggled with the dilemma of whether to reward frequency or spend. I’d prefer frequency, to make it inclusive, yet I don’t want to be seen encouraging people to drink more just to get a freebie. Appearances are everything.
I could just focus on VIPs, offering a higher discounts to the ultra-loyal customers if they buy a case of 12 every few weeks. Do 15% instead of 10%. I can already hear the disapproving tsk from my accountant as I try to explain how customer retention is an important metric, even if it does hurt my bottom line.
Then there’s the management of a loyalty programme. I start to get a headache from imagining all the additional admin. So I start to research companies who can do customisable apps. The cost! My EPoS is cheaper. If I’m going to spend that much, I should do it myself. Crowdfund it. Call it Drinkii or Winofy – and dedicate my time getting other independent retailers to use it. I start imagining all the awards and plaudits rolling in, clearly forgetting I have a shop to run.
Maybe quick and dirty would be best in the short term – with a card and a rubber stamp. A complimentary glass of wine after six purchases would be easy to manage. Dealing with all the people who lost their cards – but still wanted their reward – would be less so.
In the end, it’s Gav who saves the day. “Let’s do a customer of the month,” he says. “You know, sort of like Pret. A free bottle or glass of wine to one of our loyal customers, just because we feel like it.” And, you know, nothing makes a customer feel valued than a random gift to say thank you for your support.