‘I only sell wines I like’

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Russell Buchanan has a lot of trade experience, but limited space. So everything on his shelves at Pop Wines in Glasgow is there because he enjoys it, not simply because he feels it’s something customers or suppliers would expect.

By Richard Ross

 

One thing that sets the best indie wine shops apart from the supermarkets is the role of gut instinct in the buying process. Compare the mental image of the multiple buyer armed with spreadsheets and tick-boxes with that of the stand-alone business owner making selections based on an intuitive feeling for what’s going to get their customers excited.

Russell Buchanan is very much in this camp. “I focus on wines that I like,” he says. “There’s no formula for it whatsoever. I try to have a fair representation from all around the world, but I don’t say that I need to have a certain amount from any one place.”

Buchanan opened Pop Wines, in the Broomhill district of Glasgow, on the north bank of the Clyde, in 2019.

He’d been working in trade for most of his career, first on the supply side with Matthew Clark and Hallgarten, before opening a couple of bars in the city.

He then owned a restaurant in Barcelona for five years before returning to Glasgow and opening Pop.

Just four months later the pandemic hit, forcing a quick swivel to set up a website.

“E-commerce was going to be the next stage of the business anyway,” he says, “but it forced my hand to do it sooner – maybe a year or two earlier – than I’d originally wanted to. It saved the business, there’s no question about it.”

The shop’s snappy name was inspired by that of his daughter, Poppy, and – naturally – the noise of a cork coming out of a bottle.

“I wanted something that was easy to remember and I didn’t want anything too convoluted or pretentious. We did consider spray-painting the front of the shop, but I don’t think I was ready for that.”

 

 

What prompted you to start the business?
It was something I wanted to do for a long time, but it seemed like a flight of fancy. My circumstances changed when I moved back to Glasgow from Spain for family reasons and I was looking for something that I could do, maybe a bit of a passion project where I wouldn’t have to rely on staff or other people – essentially something I could do myself. But the business has grown since I started it and now I do have a couple of staff.

What was your vision for the business?
I always wanted it to be good value and a well-curated selection of wines that would not necessarily be available everywhere. I wanted to use suppliers and producers that I’d worked with in the past. The location of the shop made sense too, but everything comes back to value for money, something a wee bit different, and a more personal approach. It’s not a big shop, so the idea was to talk to people about the wines.

What’s your typical customer like?
Very varied. We have a lot of local customers and we do sell a lot online as well, so it’s hard to tell. Our most regular customers tend to be looking for something really nice for Friday and Saturday night dinners. When the summer comes along I always make sure the fridge is stocked as people come in to buy wine to have with their barbecues.

This part of town has a tradition of being fairly booze-free.
Yes, our licence is quite unusual in Glasgow. Most off-licences operate until 10pm but ours is only until 7pm. It’s historically a dry area. There are a few reasons but I think the main one is the proximity of the hospital. The NHS were objecting quite often to the renewal of licences but times are changing now.

It’s not an area with a lot of young people, and most of the time I think it becomes a wee bit quieter around about 5pm or 6pm, with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays. I suppose I could do with a little bit of extra time.

What would you say are your specialist areas?
It really is wines I like, so it’s a very personal thing and there’s nobody telling me what to do. The cost of living being what it is, I have to be able to justify what I’m charging for every bottle on the shelf. Whether it’s a Verdelho from Spain, or Burgundy or Bordeaux, it has to be value for money.

Cheap doesn’t come into it; it’s about value. It’s a good way to build repeat custom, because people trust that you know what you’re doing and they come back. They know that the wine you sell is good.

Do you look for any particular style or approach to winemaking in the wines you source in any way?
Not necessarily. We’ve got some tiny producers and larger producers. I’m not a big advocate of natural wine; it just has to be first and foremost a good wine. More and more producers are taking a minimalist approach, which is great, but I’m not going to start doing natural wine just for the sake of it. Some are great, and some are not so great and some can be very expensive.

Do you look for any particular style or approach to winemaking in the wines you source in any way?
Not necessarily. We’ve got some tiny producers and larger producers. I’m not a big advocate of natural wine; it just has to be first and foremost a good wine. More and more producers are taking a minimalist approach, which is great, but I’m not going to start doing natural wine just for the sake of it. Some are great, and some are not so great and some can be very expensive.

We do change things up according to the time of year and what I think will sell. In Scotland in the summer we try to focus on lighter reds, and rosé obviously gets popular. Good quality sparkling wines, not necessarily Champagne, have become really popular.

Which are your main suppliers?
I work with quite a few including Hallgarten, Berkmann, Graft and Hatch. We try to keep it relatively tight, but basically we’re happy to work with wine importers who can bring something interesting to the table.

We have the beer side of things too. We have some cider and a few bits and pieces in snacks. This used to be a deli, but it’s never been my ambition to throw away lots of profit every week. I stick to things like crisps, olives and charcuterie – things people can pick up to complement a bottle of wine on their way home.

You opened in late 2019, so it was quite a short time before things went wobbly.
It was just myself and I had to think on my feet. I’d spent a lot of money filling the shelves when I opened, and it was just before Christmas, so sales were brisk. Things were inevitably quieter in January and February, and to get that news in March, it gave us a bit of a problem.

We were technically allowed to stay open but I didn’t want to be the reason that people were out and about. At that time it was extremely serious. We decided to close the business and I went and locked myself in a darkened room for a few days and built a website, which I’d never done before.

It opened us up to a lot of new customers. People were buying six bottles at a time, which they wouldn’t have done if they were just passing.
From a PR perspective it worked well, as we were seen as a bit of a saviour to an extent. People were very appreciative of the delivery service.

Have you held on to those customers?
Yes, pretty much. I am finding that people who were ordering online are now coming in and introducing themselves and saying “you helped me through lockdown”.
It’s good that people are coming back into the shop, as it was never intended to be an online-only business.

What’s your annual turnover?
About £250,000 this year. Margin wise we are at 30%–35% and obviously we try to take advantage of supplier offers where we can. There were some good offers to be had during lockdown.

What does the future hold?
I’d potentially like to do a bit of on-trade again, but we can’t have drinking in here, so that’s really for the future. At the moment, certainly for the rest of this year, I want to consolidate. Obviously, it’s been an uneven beginning to the business, so it will be quite interesting to have an uninterrupted year.

I’d like to expand the online side of things and I’d like to import a bit of wine myself, but after Brexit that has become a bit more difficult. The [proposed] duty changes and so on have tempered my appetite for it a little bit.

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