A few years ago a thought struck me. Looking back, it must have been a combination of factors and observations that led to the arrival of this thought, some of which I have written about before.
Close to home I was seeing an increasing proportion of our wholesale business focusing on the lower end of the wine list. Our customer base type was not changing especially nor was the drinker moving down market in their tastes. If anything the reports were of the opposite. Activity in our little Felixstowe shop compared to our on-trade business suggested to me that the gap was growing between the quality of wines consumed at home and those drunk in pubs. The cause of this could be many things and is not entirely clear although I suspect it is related to the increased web-born transparency of pricing brought about by the mobile use of Google and others; nothing nicer than looking up the price of a commoditised product whilst enjoying an otherwise analogue evening out with friends.
But if in the future my business rotates around low end wine from necessarily larger producers, how can I ever ship anything interesting?
Prices demanded by pubs and restaurants have long been the subject of debate amongst their customers and never more so than now. A toxic combination of increasing alcohol duties, staff cost hikes (think pensions more than wage increases) and energy price inflation mean that prices need to go up. And at the same time that customers are feeling the pinch.
And drinking habits continue to change. Youngsters are shunning alcohol as health nannies persist in telling us to stop enjoying ourselves. Unless they have a convincing restaurant offer, are a real-ale hub or have a prime town centre spot, pubs are struggling to attract customers.
So what to do when the bulk of your business relies on wine sales through pubs and restaurants?
To me the answer is clear and two-fold. We need to move up-market slightly. And when I say we, I mean all of us in the supply chain. And we need to pursue low overheads.
The drinker needs to be just ever so slightly more astonished by the quality of what we sell them, the retailer needs to have a slightly better front of house understanding of the product and we the importer need to continue to ship interesting wines even if that means working a little harder at educating that front of house so that they may explain it to the drinker. If the server is nervous of the product or the attached price, they won’t sell it.
But is this possible? Can it happen?
I thought I’d find out.
I decided to create a new model of wine retailer. One based around a blank sheet of paper and my experiences and observations accrued over 34 years in the trade. I don’t wish to be too specific or critical here but I notice things going wrong with our own shop, our own web sales, our own wholesale operation, some of our producers’ activities and (and I take a risk here) some of the activities and features of our customers’ businesses. What if I could remove the things I thought were going wrong?
So after a frustratingly long gestation and considerable expense, the new wine-boutique was born.
Why Felixstowe? Although still inexplicably a bit of a suffolk secret, it is a superb place clearly “on the up” and with a proper shopping heart. Most importantly though, we had an existing audience; people who knew us and trusted us a bit.
And the model? What’s different about it?
We don’t stock any of the wines that we wholesale in large quantities; our entry level wine starts where most of our trade customers “top out”.
We charge a fixed, non-percentage drink-in supplement. We believe our costs of service are the same whether you drink simple table wine or Champagne. So why charge you more for serving the latter? Already this is proving successful without us having to explain it.
We don’t open when you are not buying. Our hours are short which means we have lower staff costs.
We do not have a huge rambling building to heat and maintain.
We have a walk-in fridge so that although we have a huge breadth of wines and beers on offer, we stand a reasonable chance of having a number of bottles/cans at the right temperature and close to hand. Saves staff costs and the bar itself can be smaller.
We have a wine-knowledgeable manager and are committed to training the other members of the team over time. Even those on short hours. And because of the relatively short hours, the manager will be there quite a lot of them.…
We aren’t attempting to make you a Mocchalattecino with sprinkles using a space-hungry, always-being-maintained, expensive machine. Nor are we pretending to make cocktails. So when you see a queue at the bar, you can be sure it will diminish quickly.
There’s no food. I know a lot of unprofitable kitchens and didn’t want to add to the number. So we have no food preparation area, no funny-coloured chopping boards and no temperature charts for fridges. No fridges in fact. How many times have you been out for a drink and find yourself fending off a series of well-meaning staff asking “are you eating tonight?”. My answer is usually “yes, but not here” usually accompanied by my wife rolling her eyes at my boring predictability.
We rate and value beer drinkers as highly as wine drinkers. And I would like to extend this over time to drinkers of alcohol-free drinks too; we have work to do on this.
Let me give an example of why I say this. We have embarked on a number of Cruises over the years and one ship in particular sticks in my mind on this subject. It boasts seventeen bars and restaurants specialising in various types of drinks, cuisines, social segments, etc. But none in which I can drink a decent beer while she enjoys a glass of Champagne. Not one. So we are either in different bars or one of us is making a drink compromise.
Why can’t we just go out for a good drink somewhere nice? Together.
We will see over the coming months what emerges from my experiment. If it works as I predict, I can use it both to help me ship better products but also to help some of my trade customers to meet the challenges they face.
I am indescribably proud of my team and what we have achieved in Felixstowe and am excited for the future of it. And thank you for your kind comments and continued patronage.
Who knows? Maybe other towns could benefit from a wine-boutique too.