Indies prepare for an unpredictable Christmas

Independent wine merchants are braced for their most unusual Christmas in decades as Covid-19 disrupts traditional trading patterns.

Normally merchants would be planning Christmas tastings and taking orders for corporate gifts, and in some cases accepting party bookings. But with these things expected to be off the agenda for many indies, businesses are pinning their hopes on a continuation of the sales boom that has endured, in large parts of the specialist trade, since the beginning of lockdown.

Roy Gillingham, owner of Fareham Wine Cellar in Hampshire, says: “This year is going to be completely different, without any shadow of a doubt.

“We are limited to how many people we can have in our store at any one time so we are looking at more click-and-collect and have a major push towards the internet side of things to keep as much business as we can.

“The one thing the pandemic has increased our internet sales and brought in new customers who would normally have shopped in the supermarkets. We shifted a lot of low-value stock we wouldn’t normally have done but Christmas is an opportunity to move higher-value stock.

“The question is, what are the public going to do, particularly with corporate gifting?”

Jefferson Boss, co-owner of StarmoreBoss in Sheffield, admits that “the next big worry is how we are going to roll Christmas out”.

Normally in November and December its shops can see up to 30 customers at a time, something that is now impossible because of social distancing measures.

Boss adds: “We might do appointment times, so you can book a 20-minute window for wine advice as so many customers want that personal touch.

“With the rule of six, family gatherings will have to be smaller so people might think, ‘let’s spend a bit more and buy that £40 bottle of wine’. So we’ll have to strategise our stock accordingly. It will be interesting and we’ve got to nail it in the next couple of weeks.”

Jim McQueen, of Fountainhall Wines in Aberdeen and Stonehaven, says that “trade could go up or down” as Christmas approaches. He adds: “Will businesses give gifts instead of a lunch or party? Will people buy better quality, because they are not going out? We just don’t know.

“Normally we have a customer tasting event for 250 people, which will not go ahead now. We are working hard with our suppliers to come up with promotional prices to offer our database of customers.”

Jonathan Charles of The Dorset Wine Company in Poundbury sounds an upbeat note. “I think if things stay the way they are, people will be willing to treat themselves – and in lieu of being able to visit their relatives will send them nice cases of wine instead,” he says.

“I’m starting to tap up our usual corporate customers. A few of them are still planning something but I don’t expect it to be as good as in previous years.

“Another aspect is the lack of Christmas parties – we won’t get the trade through our wholesale customers. We’ve cancelled our big Christmas tasting but we’ll send out a big offer in its place. It’s no real substitute, but it’s a good excuse to at least engage with some people.”

October 2020