Independent voices

the risks and rewards of reopening my shop

Cat Brandwood of Toscanaccio in Winchester would be happier to stick with deliveries for a while longer to minimise the risk of spreading infection. But she suspects she’ll be opening her doors on June 15 and aiming for some sort of normality

When lockdown was announced on March 23 I had already decided that I was going to close my doors to customers and operate a delivery service only for the time being. My other staff had clearly been uncomfortable working during their last shifts and I was increasingly concerned about bringing home the virus.

Here we are 11 weeks later; I’ve spent the equivalent of a week’s working hours driving around in a souped-up Fiat 500 that is wholly unsuited to being a delivery vehicle, I’ve developed a habit of talking to myself in my empty shop and yet I’m still not keen on the idea of throwing open the doors again and regaining my sanity.

As someone who, it turns out, really thrives on human interaction, why am I not keen to bring back the soul of my shop – interaction with my customers?

Cat Brandwood

The advice we’ve been given essentially amounts to the following: Do a risk assessment, practise social distancing, everyone wash their hands, clean more frequently. This is exactly what was being practised in the shop pre-lockdown and it wasn’t good enough then. I don’t feel reassured that I’ll be doing the right thing by throwing open the doors on June 15, but I suspect that for the business to thrive I must.

As a business with fewer than five employees I don’t have to have a written risk assessment, but it has been reported that there will be random spot checks by HSE so it seems that it would be prudent to have this written down. The public (customers/staff) have also been encouraged to report conditions that they think are unsafe.

How much responsibility do I have? Will I find myself under investigation if there is an outbreak that can be traced back to my store? That is certainly what would happen if the business was the source of a salmonella outbreak.

Salmonella isn’t very easy to catch from talking to your customers, though. The government has made it clear that there are options for enforcement including fines and jail sentences of up to two years for businesses not protecting staff and customers. Just how far should I be going in ensuring everyone is protected? One independent business on my street will be supplying disposable gloves and facemasks at the door and requiring that they be worn in store.

My risk assessment currently labels the risk of opening as very high. As the only full-time member of staff, there is a real risk to business continuity as my being ill would shut the place. Delivery to my customers has largely been successful, especially in those first few weeks of panic, and I’d be much happier if this were to continue. I also know that as other businesses open up around me – businesses that haven’t been as lucky as I am to maintain a revenue stream during this period – that I need to be open too.

Even when I open again, I fear that a little bit of soul has been lost that will take time to recover. Friday evenings were often spent with customers clutching a well-earned glass of wine whilst I talked them through some wines for their weekend. It was a bustling place that was full of life, jollity, and the odd secret spilled. But mostly it was full of people: something I probably won’t see again for a long time.

June 2020

No shame in focusing on cheaper wines

David Dodd of Tivoli Wines in Cheltenham explains why he’s been happy to expand his sub-£10 wine range as Covid-19 temporarily changes some of the rules about being a specialist independent wine merchant

I tend to shy away from the wonderful world of wine Twitter. But I’ve noted several discussions on whether independents should be mopping up the sub-£9 overspill from supermarkets rather than forcing consumers, in a state of panic over empty wine aisles, to trade up to the higher price brackets.

There was the faint suggestion that somehow it was hypocritical of us to line our pockets from selling cases of £7.99 Chenin Blanc or £8.99 Malbec, when we typically laud the benefits of spending just a few pounds more.

I suppose it’s a valid argument, but we’re operating in unprecedented times, and we might need to behave like predators to survive the next 12 months.

Personally, I relished the opportunity to go paddling around in the cooler oceans of the supermarkets whilst trying to entice a fish or two back to the warmer shores of our archipelago. What harm would come from us fattening our bank accounts before the cold winter of recession, rumoured to be the worst in a generation, hits us?

One of the benefits of being small is to be nimble, able to react quickly to new opportunities, before the larger, more cumbersome competitors can catch up. With the supermarkets controlling over 80% of the UK’s wine spend, this was one hell of an opportunity for us, delivered at a time when we needed it most.

I don’t feel like I placed our reputation at risk as we sold lines we previously stocked, only in much greater quantities, and I stand by each line as being superior to most of the average supermarket fare.

There’s also the impersonal nature online retailing to consider, and the restricted ability to effectively communicate at the point of sale. Apart from the cross-selling options at the bottom of our page, how do you upsell to the online consumer (it’s a genuine question)?

I suppose we could opt for one of the “Do you want to chat?” plug-ins, but I’ll be buggered if I’m going to get out of bed at midnight to tell a customer to not buy the £7.99 Chenin because the £12.99 Grüner pairs better with their white asparagus.

So in a year when success might be measured by how long we can continue to pay our employees a full wage, rather than the pounds on our annual P&L, I’ll take everything I can get and I feel no guilt.

May 2020

Read David Dodd’s full article about how Tivoli Wines has adapted to survive during the coronavirus crisis in the May edition of The Wine Merchant, or read the same piece online here.

To B2B or maybe B2C?

With the on-trade shut down, a vast chunk of revenue has evaporated from the order books of wine importers. Many have tried to plug the gap – or at least some of it – by selling direct to consumers. It’s not exactly a new concept, but in these nervous times, it’s a practice that many indies find unsettling

There is something that’s been swimming under the surface for a long time: the blurry lines between wholesale and retail.

Let’s broadly define “wholesale” as selling wines to other businesses, definitely not directly to actual people. As for retail: let’s frame that as selling to the people doing the drinking.

As is always the case with the wine industry, here 1 + 1 = 3. Wholesalers plus retailers, who can then generally be split into on-trade and off-trade, make for an interesting trio.

My mind initially jumps to the vibrant indie retail scene. Traditional bricks-and- mortar retail, on/off hybrids, and digitally focused e-commerce sites. Lots of indies cover all three of these and most can tick two off the list.

It’s obvious too, that the 900+ independent retailers in the UK largely rely on imports from wholesalers to keep their businesses going, to keep wines on the shelf, and keep their customers happy.

It’s not that either directly selling to consumers or primarily selling to the trade is better or worse than any other model. It’s a model.

Here’s where the ripples of this industry may turn in to waves. It’s not a new scenario: a wholesaler with a retail operation. No matter how niche, or obscure your small parcel of unfiltered, skin-contact Assyrtiko may be, if it’s available online directly from the wholesaler, it makes the retailer’s life harder.

The wholesaler will always be in charge of the retail price. I know, albeit anec-factually, indie merchants who don’t buy from such wholesalers because competing on price and transparency is very difficult.

Is there an argument to me made that this has been going on forever? Yes, but. Businesses thrive on opacity, and a little leverage over the consumer is valuable. If it’s not obvious where a wine comes from, the price is … priceless.

There are those who have got this conundrum spot on. They’ve figured out the balance and that is fantastic. It took patience and a considered approach to the market with an appreciation of other business models. We are all in this industry together, and in order to appeal to everyone your offer has to be balanced.

In the bizarre situation we find ourselves now, many wholesalers have had their models ruined. While retailers crack on, deliver, trade, and by all accounts continue to thrive, there are suddenly many wholesalers left shockingly, and understandably, confused.

These circumstances have multiplied the conundrum, currents have turned awry, and the seas are getting choppier. What is a wholesaler to do? Ponder a state of being versus a state of not being.

If your business is built on importing wine, and then selling it to thousands of on-trade businesses who are now closed, do you balance survival and prosperity or simply struggle on? The only sensible option is to confidently switch models. Selling directly to the public is, for many, now the only option. We’ve seen many businesses quickly launch online stores, offering mixed cases and wholesale prices to the general public.

That said, I’m anticipating many hotels and restaurants taking arms against this sea of troubles. Here’s the rub: a relationship with an on-trade focused supplier, who, while your operation has been closed, is now selling directly to the public. Once re-opened, many restaurant wine lists will be all the more transparent and I’m sure that many suppliers will be facing some awkward conversations because of it.

I don’t think we’ll return to “normal”; the conversation is more out in the open that it’s ever been. Refreshed business models that are working now won’t be changing back. Businesses that have always had a multi-channel operation will continue to do so.

It might be that in future everyone will do more of everything, but conscience may make cowards of us all. In order to look to the future, whilst continuing to run viable businesses, wholesalers know that their customers’ cleverly-sourced wine ranges may have suddenly become a whole lot more transparent.

There’s no right answer to the question posed. But it’s going to be fascinating to see how many different answers we get.

May 2020

Dan Kirby splits his time between investment specialists Corkr Fine Wines, fine wine auctioneer Taversham’s, and running the The Suffolk Cellar


Frightened, but perhaps enlightened

Chris Connolly of Birmingham independent merchant Connolly’s takes stock of a nervewracking few months – and begins to plot a path to recovery out of the coronavirus wreckage

FML, where do you start?

I remember just after Christmas being seriously brassed off by a customer who had had umpteen samples and demanded endless list re-writes before announcing that someone else was marginally cheaper so they were going to transfer the business to them.

I was bloody fuming, incandescent, beyond seething. But I wasn’t scared. Now I’m spending a lot of time feeling scared. Not worried as in “business is a bit slow, how are we going to pay the VAT?” but “are my loved ones going to survive this?” scared. Business worries come in a very distant second. Even Brexit pales into insignificance.

Life for the vast majority in post war Britain has been pretty good, all things considered; the occasional economic blip but largely pretty good. We’ve got used to being safe and secure. SARS, bird flu and Ebola were all things that affected other people – then midnight struck on December 31 and 2020 knocked on the door with a scythe over his shoulder saying “here’s Johnny!”

chris connolly

So, January was OK; we had a sale which went well, shifted a lot of “slower moving stock” and made way for the tidal wave of new arrivals that we went in search of. Heard a few stories about Wuhan (WTF is Wuhan?) and dismissed them ‘cos it’s on the other side of the planet and it’ll be just like bird flu that turned out to be something and nothing. Mind you, you’ve got to wonder how on earth they shut down a whole country, haven’t you?

And then it hit Italy and suddenly things started to feel a bit more real, particularly if you were running short of bog paper. But interestingly, although those folk who, three months previously had been telling us that “we’d got through two world wars so Brexit will be fine” were now scrapping in supermarket aisles over the last tin of chopped tomatoes, the hospitality industry remained reasonably buoyant and, if anything, retail started to gather momentum.

Moving into March, it became all too evident that this was not something that would, somehow or other, miraculously disappear, whatever the leader of the free world might have to say on the matter.

Lockdowns that had initially been restricted to Lombardy were extended to cover the whole of Italy, numbers from across the globe edged frighteningly higher and, by the middle of the month, the hospitality business was in freefall and sleepless nights were spent rehearsing the difficult conversations that needed to be held. The sense of relief when Rishi Sunak shook the magic money tree and the furlough scheme fell out was almost overwhelming.

When the lockdown started, we took the decision to close both shops which remains the case to date – albeit we are starting to put measures in place in preparation for re-opening shortly. In the meantime, the small but perfectly formed team that remain at the coal face are running a ridiculously busy home delivery service.

How much longer it can continue is open to question and the end of lockdown will, presumably, sound its death knell but, for the moment, it is keeping the tills ringing and bringing us to the attention of a lot of new customers.

Where do we go from here? Ask me in 12 months. The government’s strategy on ending the lockdown remains a mystery. But one thing of which we can be sure is that hospitality is a vaccine away from returning to its former glory, so those of us who have spent the past 40 years building businesses to service the industry are going to have to get creative. Which I actually find quite exciting. And maybe just a little bit scary.

May 3, 2020


Not thriving, but surviving

Jeroboams chief executive Hugh Sturges describes how the London merchant has negotiated the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis

Endless column inches have been written about coronavirus: facts, theories, opinions and comment. One more may be one too many. However, I thought I might just jot down a few paragraphs on how Jeroboams as a wine merchant has adapted over the last two to three weeks.

A little background. Jeroboams is a full-service wine and spirit merchant, by which I mean that we service the local community through our eight London shops, the collector through our private accounts business, and corporates, caterers and restaurants via our trade arm. Our office is in Islington and we employ 80 or so people.

Hugh Sturges

The first hint of the change to come came from two or three staff being concerned about family and asking if they could work from home. Very quickly we took account of Government advice and allowed all staff who lived with people over 70, or were pregnant (or living with someone who is) and anyone with a newborn baby to work from home.

Everyone else carried on until the Government closed bars and restaurants which, along with the collapse in air travel and the cruise market, took out a third of our turnover overnight. This was followed by the closure of retail outlets on March 23, another third of our business, before off-licences were deemed an essential service on March 25.

Whilst all this was happening our management were reacting in real time, closing shops, communicating with staff, contingency planning, opening shops again … since when things have settled down to a degree and we have remodelled our business accordingly.

The loss of the trade business is a blow to us, but the bigger blow must surely be to the trade itself. We have had to furlough much of our trade team as there is no selling to be done, but we have retained some whose role is to communicate: to talk to customers, see how they are, ask if there is anything we can do to help; to listen to – and where possible support plans to help the customer through.

Most of our shops are open, but not all, and we have reduced the days and hours we are open as well. This is to help protect our staff and to allow for depleted numbers due to self-isolation and illness. We pay for those working to travel by taxi if they cannot walk or cycle to the shops, asking them not to take public transport.

Customers have been fantastic as they get used to our rules for social distancing with restricted entry and use of cards rather than cash. Initially we saw a run on stock, but since then customers now know we are open for business and there has been a return to normal trade (albeit with a bit extra, as we are definitely seeing some business that would have gone to restaurants as people are drinking in rather than out).

We are being active in our communities on social media and have see a good take-up of our offer to prepare orders in store for collection and delivery if people don’t want to come to the shop. And our usual free local delivery service has been extended to anyone over 70 (six bottles, within the M25), which has been well received.

So, we are not thriving, but we are surviving – and enjoying doing what we can for customers and employees alike.

April 8, 2020

We aren’t trading, so please don’t expect your rent in full

Matt Harris of Planet of the Grapes says the furlough scheme and business rates relief has helped his business stay afloat. Now landlords need to show the same kind of flexibility

All four of our bars have been shut for nearly three weeks now, so we have lost £150,000 of turnover.

Matt Harris

BUT – on the positive side – we have picked up lots of retail orders and most of those are from people we never sold to before. So going forwards we will have a bigger database and the customers and shareholders we do have are being AMAZING and very supportive.

The help with rates  has been brilliant, as has the furlough scheme – we have not let anyone go and are supporting every member of staff, full time and part time. We paid their full wages for March and the whole company has taken a pay cut from April 1 onwards.

But landlords are really pissing me off. They seem to think that having staff paid and rates reduced means we can afford to pay them the full rent. WE ARE NOT TRADING!

A small amount of retail compared to our usual bar takings does not get close to our normal turnover and is miles away from the margins we normally make. It’s all well and good if you have a single shop somewhere cheap. But we have four central London bars with high rents and service charges and it is crippling us.

Giving us time to pay does not help long term – it just moves the problem further down the road. We will survive now, but will be broke this time next year.

What is getting me through this is the support of my family, colleagues and customers. They have all been the difference between going bust and mad and actually making a fight of it.

April 6, 2020

Anthony Borges

We’re socially distancing – but our community has come together in the coronavirus crisis

Anthony Borges of The Wine Centre in Great Horkesley in Essex is one of hundreds of independents to close his shop to the public. But deliveries and pick-ups are providing a crucial income stream

Last Saturday [March 21] we were busy in the shop, not unlike a pre-Christmas shopping day. Excellent news, you might think, except it became impossible to practice social distancing and frankly, too many of our customers were not respecting the rules at all, in spite of the notices we had placed around the shop.

We ended up providing everyone with gloves, but at the end of the day I felt it was uncomfortably irresponsible to remain open. I felt it wasn’t fair on our staff or our customers. Finally, after much deliberation and talks with our staff, we closed Monday night. Staff now are self-isolating and from behind closed doors, via phone and email. I am operating a pick-up and delivery service, which is going well.

Wednesdays are scheduled pick-up days, with delivery to the boot, in our car park, respecting social distancing. On Thursdays I deliver to the homes of the more vulnerable members of our community, as well as to those self-isolating. I leave the order on the doorstep and ring the bell, or text, or telephone – whatever the arrangement – and they usually emerge just in time for me to wish them well as I drive off to the next one.

Everyone seems grateful for the service, and sales are up. Though the coronavirus is unquestionably a terrible thing, it has brought about a positivity and a coming together within our community which cheers me.

What’s more, as an independent I am particularly delighted to have picked up Wine Society customers recently – and I remain hopeful they may convert to us permanently once the virus has passed and normal life resumes.

March 27, 2020

Paola Tich

You’re targeting our customers, and not even warning us

Paola Tich of Vindinista in Acton, west London, believes some suppliers are being short-sighted in bypassing independent merchants as they look to replace lost on-trade sales by selling direct to consumers

“Thank you to the Vindinista team for continuing to distribute these essential and delicious supplies.” Just one of the many comments on our social media channels after we pivoted from being a wine shop and early evening bar to a delivery service, or pay-and-pick-up if customers want to swing by on their daily exercise outdoors. Operating for four days only and with minimal staff so that we can ourselves work safely, it’s been a little overwhelming. It took us until Saturday to clear the backlog – and we are already getting orders in for later this week.

But, it turns out, we are not the only wine businesses temporarily changing our models. A number of suppliers who’ve never really done direct to consumer are now offering mixed cases to the public – at very sharp prices, which compete directly with their trade clients. Now, I am fully aware that they are in a very tough spot with the collapse of their on-trade business,  and I suspect much of this has been a knee-jerk reaction without even thinking of the longer-term consequences. But finding out that this is happening via Twitter or Instagram and not in a personal phone call or email – the bedrock of account management – is disappointing.

Working with suppliers who also have an online shop has always been a tricky one to navigate. The shrewd ones work it so prices are not too dissimilar to their off-trade customers. Or do direct-to-consumer under a different name. Working with them allows bricks-and-mortar wine retailers like myself to offer a more exciting, diverse range than if we imported everything ourselves. It seems that now, everyone is going direct to the end customer.

The lack of proactive personal contact from some of my core suppliers – rather than generic emails to all customers – has surprised me. If most of their on-trade business has suddenly disappeared, doesn’t that free up more time for some smart thinking, to see how we can work better together during this crisis – like promotions on certain lines where you are over-stocked that we can also pass on at discount? We all want to maintain our margins, but it is more important right now to keep the cash flowing. Or how about exploring how to sell special themed mixed cases via your wine merchant client network instead of doing direct? Doesn’t it make sense to harness their strong customer relationships and creative thinking – such as organising online customer tastings?

On the flip side, I’ve been hugely appreciative of those suppliers who have offered additional discounts, lower delivery minimums and longer payment times. We too find it frustrating that our customers are focusing their spend on cheaper wines, but that’s to be expected in times of uncertainty when these customers are worried about money – not to mention their health and that of their loved ones. I’m sure there will be some re-balancing when people want to cheer themselves up and still can’t go out to eat or drink.

Anyone who knows me will appreciate that I am not a Pollyanna. The entire wine trade has had the rug ripped from beneath it, and that’s before you take into account people who are too ill to do their job. But at some point this will be history and I hope all my suppliers will still be in business. I hope I will be, too. On that assumption, surely it’s now the time to forge stronger relationships with off-trade customers, rather than rupture those connections through short-term panic thinking.

March 31, 2020

rob hoult

The best of times. The worst of times.

Rob Hoult of Hoults Wine Merchants in Huddersfield reflects on a bittersweet week on the retailing front line

They say that a week is a long time in politics. But crikey, it’s a hell of a long time if you’re a wine merchant, too.

Obviously it was a week of momentous changes for all of us. Normally March seems to race along at an alarming speed and we’re working out our first VAT bill of the year before we know it. This year it seems to be dragging and there’s still over a week left as I write this.

A week ago, I thought it was the beginning of the end. I cautiously put in orders for stock knowing that at any point we could lose our wholesale business. I didn’t want to be sat on piles of unsold wine for weeks and I have to think about my suppliers too. Saturday had been quiet, and Monday was following suit. Malaise was in the air.

Tuesday saw us try and work out some changes to the business going forward but the constant flow of customers curtailed this. By the end of the day, we’d had our second busiest retail day of the year, and it was a bloody Tuesday.

Each day got busier. Friday was daft, but Saturday … well Saturday required every ounce of my retail skill as we doubled Friday’s sales and I tried to keep customers happy whilst working around the massive holes in our range caused by my cagey buying, and the sudden fact that we were selling the most in-demand grocery item in the land.

We’re all in this together: every person, every business, and every country. So chin up – we’ll be fine

By 4pm, when it started to quieten down, we’d had our best-ever retail week outside of Christmas trading. We’d also had to shut our wine bar and effectively lost all of our wholesale trade. As such I didn’t feel as jubilant as a week’s trading like that would suggest. Normally a week of selling like that would leave me pumped up like Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Top Gun, except with much less sand, slightly fewer volley balls and only marginally less latent homoeroticism. In fact, I just felt glum.

Yes, we’d put money in the bank, but it’s only there to pay bills and cash is not the same as cash flow. When I think of how tough it must be for my wholesale customers; when I think of how difficult it is for my fellow independent retailers who don’t, through sheer luck, sell wine; and when I think about all the other businesses that are suffering from this then it would be easy to think the worst.

There are, however, positives. Firstly, and from a purely retail perspective, it’s March and not November. Secondly, we are all in this together: every person, every business and every country. So chin up – we’ll be fine.

Thirdly, one of the true joys of retail is the customers themselves. I have literally talked myself hoarse over the last week. I have chatted to people from every walk of life, from binmen to ICU nurses, from CEOs to retired folk at risk the most. They have all been upbeat and happy to chat and the sense of camaraderie has been wonderful. It’s reminded me of the old days when we had a corner shop and everyone knew everyone and, even more importantly, wanted to know everyone’s business. A shop acting as a central point of a community was what made it work then, and it’s what makes it work now.

I wrote this Saturday night. We closed on Sunday to just get some rest. On Monday we opened as normal, but then I decided to close the shop from Tuesday morning and just do deliveries or customers could collect from the car park.

Obviously, as is the nature of this situation, that all changed again after Monday’s announcement and we are now only doing home delivery. I’m sure we could look to bend the rules a little and stay open somehow, but I’m conscious that we need to make sure that we stay on the right side of all this.

We will get through it and we will be stronger. We’re going to need to be, because that is some tax bill that is going to be coming our way. Every cloud, and all that.

March 24, 2020