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


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 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.

Indies need a 50% sales increase to compensate for lost business

Independent wine shops are working flat out to fill the gaps left by the collapse in wholesale business and drink-in sales.

Although many merchants are reporting a boom in orders for collection or delivery, and an influx of new customers, the independent trade as a whole would need to achieve a retail sales increase of around 50% to compensate for the loss of other revenue streams.

The Wine Merchant’s 2020 reader survey shows that a record 40% of stores now offer wine for consumption on the premises, up from 37% in 2019.

On average, this channel accounts for 12.5% of turnover, with wholesaling standing at just under 16% and events at just under 4%.

Retail sales are typically just under 60% of turnover, averaged out across the entire independent trade, and online sales 5%.

Phil Innes, owner of Loki Wines in Birmingham, says: “We have seen a huge uplift in delivery sales, but it doesn’t go anywhere near to replacing the drinking-in and event sales that we have worked so hard to develop.

“It’s a complete nightmare, but at least we have that outlet to sell wine and keep us ticking over, even at low margins.”

Some merchants – especially those who rely on drink-in sales for the majority of their turnover – say their problems are being compounded by the inflexibility of their landlords.

Ted Sandbach of The Oxford Wine Company says the business has been “inundated” with delivery orders and is continuing to operate from two of the group’s sites.

But he adds that the Oxford University colleges which are landlords for three of the company’s premises will only agree to defer rent – “so in other words the debt just builds up, which is no bloody help at all”. He adds: “The Oxford colleges are behaving appallingly and arrogantly with no understanding of the situation we all find ourselves in. Some plead poverty – can you believe it?

“We have no help at all from the shops with rateable value above £51,000, which rules out two of the premises, so they expect us to pay with no trade and no government help.
“OK – we get free rates for a year, and a big Boris bonus and when these promised payments come through. It will be a help, but as yet there’s no indication of how we pay wages short term, especially with those furloughed.

“My situation is simple – I am paying everything, but only half the rent to my landlords and we can argue about the other half later. I rent out two small premises and have let off both tenants for three months.”

Matt Harris of Planet of the Grapes in London faces similar problems. Writing for The Wine Merchant’s website on April 6, he said: “All four of our bars have been shut for nearly three weeks now, so we have lost £150,000 of turnover.

“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 seem to think that having staff paid and rates reduced means we can afford to pay them the full rent. We are not trading!”

How our world has changed

On Thursday evening [March 26] The Wine Merchant hosted a video conference to discuss how the independent trade is coping with the coronavirus crisis.

The conversation involved David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines; Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants; Kate Goodman of Reserve Wines in Greater Manchester; Julia Jenkins of Flagship Wines in St Albans; and Duncan Murray of Duncan Murray Wines in Market Harborough.

Our internet connection wasn’t great, so sound and video quality wasn’t good enough to upload to YouTube as planned. But we’ve captured as much of the conversation as we could, and we summarise it here.

Wine shops classed as essential service providers

The UK has entered its official shutdown, and the message from the government is that only shops selling essential goods can stay open. As of today (March 25), wine merchants and off-licences are included on that list.

The detail is spelled out here. Yesterday it seemed clear that any shop that principally selling alcohol should stay closed until restrictions are lifted, but today such shops find themselves classed as essential service providers.

Nobody will be allowed to sell drinks or food for consumption on the premises. But online sales and local deliveries are allowed and indeed “encouraged”.