Glad to be grounded
Tom Jones just wants to run a lovely wine business staffed by lovely people for lovely customers. The nervous 23-year-old who set up the business has come a long way in his first 10 years, but he remains as down to earth as he was at the beginning
Like a lot of things scheduled for April 2020, the 10th anniversary of Whalley Wine Shop was something of a damp squib. But for Tom Jones and his team, there wasn’t time to dwell on that. Lockdown was underway and sales were booming.
There’s not an ounce of self-pity in Jones’s voice as he talks about the “big plans” for the celebration that never was. But it would have been a nice moment to reflect on how far the business has come in its first decade, and what a reputation it has established – not only in its native Lancashire, but within the wine trade more generally.
How does Jones recall those early times? “I had the confidence of youth,” he says. “At 23 years of age, coming out of university, you think you’re invincible.
“I was lucky in that my parents had their own business, so I came from a business background and I’d seen that, basically, if you work hard and you put the time in, you get the reward out of it.”
But he admits he was “certainly nervous about coming into the industry”.
“Ten years ago, it was much more closed than it is now,” he says. “I was walking into tastings and I was the youngest by a country mile. I almost had to over-prove that I knew what I was talking about and had a decent palate.
“I think we’ve done a good job of stripping that element out; I think the industry is a lot more welcoming.”
Jones has been on a mission to turn “an off-licence in a small village in the north west of England into what I hope is one of the leading independents in the country”.
The words may come across as brash, but anyone who’s met Jones will testify that this isn’t a character trait at all.
“We don’t big ourselves up – it’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s just genuine,” he says. “We like what we do, and we do it well. I think we’ve done a fantastic job in the 10 years we’ve been open.
“I don’t have the ability to be all bling and style. We have a lovely little shop with lovely people who work in it and lovely people who visit us.
“We don’t have any pretences. If someone comes in and wants to talk about their Bordeaux first-growth or second-growth collection, I would have to say, ‘look, we’re probably not the right place, I’m not going to be able to help you’. If you want genuine, good wines to drink this week with friends then yes, that’s our area. We are pretty grounded.”
Whalley has been operating as a hybrid wine shop/wine bar but is in the process of opening a dedicated wine bar next door, to separate these two strands of the business.
How has the range evolved during and since lockdown?
We bought loads of new wines in during lockdown. We’ve been asking to see samples and a lot of suppliers have been great on that. It’s been different but with reduced hours we’ve been able to finish the day and for half an hour, we get together, spread out, get our own spittoon, grab a booklet and taste the wine as a team.
How many suppliers have you been working with?
At the beginning of lockdown, back in March, our supply base narrowed because we defaulted to the companies that we really felt we could deal with quickly and efficiently. They were the people we jumped to straight away.
I’d tried to have a process in January/February where I met with all our suppliers – around 35 – and I asked them to bring our three-year trading history so we could look at the numbers.
I said to everyone, let’s see what our business has bought from you over the last three years and if you like the numbers, then great – let’s have a plan about how we’re going to carry on. And if you don’t like the numbers, let’s have a chat about why and see what we can do to turn that around.
I sat down with about six or eight and it was great to see the enthusiasm. It was pre-Covid-19 so we were looking at activities we could do like tastings and trips, and basically it gave us a blueprint for the rest of the year. Obviously we can tear that up and throw it away …
The people I got a good vibe from as a result of those meetings, those were the people we leapt to with bigger orders at the start.
We’d only been working with North South since last year and it’s been really good working with those guys. They were one of the ones we went from small, intermittent orders to rapidly increasing our volume with them over lockdown.
Have you had a boom in sub-£10 wines?
During lockdown when customers were switching over from supermarkets and price was a key factor, we were looking for sub-£10 wines.
For the first six weeks, everything under £10 just left the building.
I have always tried to keep a policy of having a smattering of sub-£10 wines, so we had quite a lot anyway. It’s so easy – the longer you spend in this industry, your palate gets attuned to more and more complex and usually more expensive wines. But as a buyer, dragging your palate back to the reality for most customers, and finding wines at £7.99 that customers will enjoy and find good fruit … you have to keep that focus as a buyer.
Some merchants say that it’s nearly impossible to find good wines below £10, so how do you track them down?
I totally disagree with that. You can find great wines below £10. It’s about the wine doing the job it needs to do and it’s how you weigh up what delivers a great wine.
I can say, “this quirky Tasmanian Pinot Noir at £35 is a great wine. It’s subtle, it’s elegant, it’s light”. If I put that in front of a farmer from Yorkshire who is having a massive plate of roast beef, he’s not going to find that it’s a great wine – he’s going to want guts and power and richness. You put a £9.99 Appassimento in front of him from Sicily that’s thick and stewy, he’s going to love it, that’s a great wine for him. It’s horses for courses.
Often I’ll get one of the guys to send a bottle of wine home to me, usually under £10 – it could be under, it could be over, and I blind taste it. The amount of times I go, “ooh, that’s good, I’d pay £13.99 for that” and it’s one of our £8.99 bottles. Now if you’d poured it and told me it was £8.99, I’d have tasted it and said, “yeah, it’s about £8.99”.
Lockdown gave the independent trade a glimpse of part of the market that it’s always been missing.
Lockdown showed that there’s huge buying out there from people who will not go above 10 quid – or will not go above eight quid in some instances. If you can find a bottle of wine for £7.99 that you are happy recommending, you might find a whole new section of customers open up to you.
It might not fit with your brand – there are plenty of wine merchants out there and they know their own market and you set your own stall out. But it works for us having a good range of sub-£10 wines.
How much do you buy from Vindependents?
We are not a big member because we don’t wholesale a vast amount, so the majority of wine goes through our retail shelves and our throughput is slower.
I’m really pleased with the work that we do with them. There are some very good wines that, at the suggested margin, are excellent and work for us and the customer.
They are very good at trying to keep all the members involved and we all have the opportunity to chip in with suggestions.
Overall, I think the model is really sound and the big appeal is that there is a slightly higher margin for members. And I really like the forum aspect.
What I’d really like to see is us focusing on some of the other bits like packaging and waste. Wouldn’t it be great if we all got together and really put some thought into these ideas of how we lessen our impact on the environment? How do we improve postal packaging; shouldn’t we all be looking at how to send out 20cl samples in lockdown? We could really push the agenda if we started acting as a group.
I’d love to see a solution that gets rid of shrink wrap and plastic carrier bags.
The wine industry does a good job behind the scenes telling us about the changes they are making in glass weight, carbon emissions and this, that and the other. But I think perhaps as an industry we need to do some visible things for the customer.
How has the Covid experience changed life for you at Whalley?
Hopefully the independent sector will have attracted customers who are going to stay.
Covid is not an excuse but has been a justification for some changes. For example, we’ve usually operated seven days a week but during lockdown we were only operating five days a week, and the numbers were still stacking up.
Previously we were seven days a week, 12 hours a day, 10am to 10pm. Moving forward we are going to be six days a week, 10am to 8pm. When we first opened it was about grabbing every sale we could. Now we are in a slightly better position where we can start to put the balance of our team and our personal lives ahead and still maintain those sales.
Are local deliveries and web sales still a big part of your business?
I think it was shifting before Covid. Amazon has changed the way people shop – that expectation of ease of delivery within 24 to 48 hours, free of charge. It has really shifted people’s perceptions and retailers have had to adapt to that.
We had invested in an e-commerce site before Covid happened. I still think it’s tricky for a small business to sell wine online. Packaging just isn’t there, it’s very costly to make sure the product gets there, and the margins are so tight that if the product doesn’t arrive and you have to replace it you are losing profit.
It’s not going to go away – it perhaps won’t reach the levels we saw during Covid, but there will be a marked increase.
It’s interesting that online sales are so big for indies now, given that the focus in recent years has been on the experience of visiting a wine shop.
As an industry I think we have to work on translating the customer service we offer in the retail shops and moving that online. Rather than fighting amongst each other to cut margin and only attracting customers on price, we need to focus on what we are offering – how we are telling the story about wine?
Wine isn’t a mobile phone contract or a spanner set. You can get the spanner you want from any shop, there’s no story behind it. You can’t get that with a bottle of Malbec. There are thousands of stories out there, so which of those merchants is going to tempt you with their story about it; how do they get you excited about it?
Will web sales be an important aspect of the business indefinitely?
I think you can get trapped into thinking that everyone is moving online. I can guarantee you that of 100 customers that walk into our shop today, let’s say that half of them are over 55 and most of them aren’t shopping online. We can think the messages we are sending in social media or online are always landing, but our emails only have a 28% open rate. There is still going to be a massive amount of customers who want to shop in person.
You’ve postponed the opening of the new wine bar. What’s the latest there?
The plan is still there. The reasons for doing it are all still valid. We still think we have a great local catchment for people who want to drink good wine. We are hoping that within 12 weeks maximum [from late August] we will have turned a half-derelict bank building into a new and thriving wine bar – right next door to the shop as well.
Why aren’t you sticking as a hybrid?
There are positives to the hybrid model which worked very well for us – in no way do I want to criticise the hybrid model, and I think for new businesses starting out it is very beneficial. I think it sets a nice, busy atmosphere and it allows you to always have wines open to taste and engage with customers.
There are lots of benefits but when we drilled down into the numbers and as the business matured, we started to see a flattening-off of the retail.
Overall numbers were going up – as a business we were still growing. That was then a combination of retail, wholesale, on-trade and then the fourth pillar, which wasn’t doing anything at the time, which was online.
The more successful the bar was, more people perceived us to be a bar. We had people turn up and say, “oh, I didn’t realise it was actually a shop”.
I think you should always stick to your core business. Know what it is, know what you want to do and look after it. Our core is that we are an independent retailer. Come in, give us money, we give you a bottle of wine and you go home.
On-trade blurred it, but it was the cream on the top. Essentially the busier it got, the more it put off our retail customers. They might be coming back from the gym in all their scruffs and they want to pick up something chilled to take home, and they see a group of nicely dressed people sitting drinking Champagne, and they think they’re not welcome.
That’s never been our intention or attitude, but I could see that happening. During the busy times, on-trade was cannibalising the retail because people didn’t want to come in and shop in a bar.
The site we are on won’t change at all. We’re going to try and move all that drink-in business and gently shift it over to the building next door.
The hope is that we can create the space in such a familiar way for people that we don’t create this jolt. It’s still us, just a bit bigger.
Will you have two separate ranges?
We still want to have some retail presence in it so we’ll perhaps cherry-pick a hundred wines to have on the shelf.
I want to bring somebody in at the start and really let them help build it with me, so I’m not committing to what we’re doing yet as I want to see who we recruit and what ideas they bring to the table.
But it will be a decent range with around 25 wines by the glass, plus luxury stuff Coravined. There’ll be around 100 bottles on the wall all available to pay corkage on or take away as retail. Priced on-trade first with a discount for retail.
You seem to have a great team. Is that just a question of luck?
I like to think we’re good at spotting the people who fit well with us. We treat them right – we have a very low turnover.
Dan [Stevens] has been with me since day one. Matt [Monk] and Jen [Jones] both joined in 2012 and Jen is now married to me, so that worked out well! Nick [Hoyle]’s been with us about four years and Rachel [Wallhouse] has done at least a year with us. Yeah, we have a great team.
Throughout lockdown they have all massively stepped up to the plate. I stepped back and was working more from home and trying to focus on developing the website, the marketing, the procedures and planning, and the guys were running the shop and they did a fantastic job.
Is that how you’d like to run things moving forward – being away from the day-to-day and being more strategic?
You end up working in the business, not on the business, and to really grow you have to be working on it.
I split the business into four pillars: retail, on-trade, wholesale and online. Once we’ve recruited the bar manager, we’ll have key people looking after each element. I will spend a day with each of them to pinpoint any issues, make plans etc.
My wife Jen is going to look after all our wholesale and corporate and we really want to try and grow that now. So that’s four days of my working week and on the fifth day I’ll work in the shop – you can’t miss out on that. It’s such an important element, to work in a shop selling wine.