With its 700-strong wine range cut back to 580 lines and a restructuring of the BWS team, it's all change for Asda going into the autumn. And as the retailer turns its attention to introducing a simplified premium drinks offering, Asda's bottom-slapping, cheap as chips image appears to be a thing of a past.
The first signs of change came in May when the retailer announced it had appointed David Stewart as BWS category director.
By combining the roles of two separate category directors - one for wine and one for beers and spirits - Asda signalled its commitment to driving the development of its drinks strategy.
When Stewart took the reins the wine team had already started working on a full-scale revision of Asda's range, which will be rolled out to all stores in September. Consisting of 580 lines, the range is tighter and more focused than before, with an emphasis on quality.
Asda's premium own-label Extra Special has also been repositioned. Initially created to compete with Tesco's Finest and Sainsbury's Taste the Difference ranges, in the past it has been dominated by more unusual niche wines. "We've made it more common sense. It's everyday treats rather than really fine wine at the top end," explains Asda's Master of Wine Philippa Carr.
The revised line-up is more focused on established classics than quirky wines. Carr uses the example of her decision to replace a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape with a more mainstream red to illustrate how the range has been tweaked. Every bottle has also been relabelled to "freshen up" the range and bring it up to date, according to Carr.
With the revamped range set to arrive in store in the coming weeks, Stewart has turned his attention to ways of making the BWS aisles easier to navigate. "We have got some stunning products in our range and we're very proud of it as a business. I think we can help to showcase these a little bit better," he says.
"Simplifying is about helping to inspire our customers. Part of that is about making it simple so that they can see what is on offer."
But Stewart is reluctant to reveal whether this will mean a grand-scale makeover for the BWS department. "Watch this space," he says.
Asda ditched bogofs on beers, wines and spirits in 2006. More than a year down the line Stewart is completely behind the decision to deliver clear price messages.
"We always want to shout the price our customers are getting, buy one get one free doesn't say what the price is. Our pricing policy is to be very open with our customers," he says.
Spirits in the spotlight
As part of Asda's brief to introduce a more premium drinks offering, its spirits range has also been revamped. "We're pushing the quality of all our products," Stewart says.
Recent changes include the creation of a four-strong Extra Special spirits range,which is set to hit shelves this week. The line-up consists of a coffee liqueur, a five-times distilled vodka made using water from Icelandic glaciers, a gin and a 12 Year Old blended Scotch Whisky.
Stewart believes the range will go some way towards fulfilling Asda's potential in the premium area. "They are quality products that compete with the branded leaders," he says. Harvey Lees, buying manager for spirits, is equally optimistic: "The 12 Year Old Scotch will retail for £13, which is in line with the price of an 8 Year Old branded leader. I'm confident that our products taste better than the leading brands," he says.
With the right merchandising, Lees predicts that in the next 18 months the range will sell higher volumes than Asda's current branded leaders. Lees is also an advocate of high profile spirits competitions and believes that displaying a product with details of medals it has won gives shoppers the confidence to buy own-label spirits over the branded choice.
Asda has made the mistake of offering too broad a spirits range in the past, according to Lees. "We have over-complicated it for a number of years. It's about going back to basics," he says.
After a review of the range, Lees took the decision to slim down Asda's spirits range by 30 per cent to 312 lines. Asda's supply base has also been rationalised by 20 per cent, he adds.
Monitoring on-trade trends is a key part of Lees' role. "We're seeing a trend into premium spirits. If you look into spirits in the on-trade there's fantastic choice and range available," he says. He names "innovative" brands such as Monkey Shoulder, Hendrick's dry gin and Grey Goose Vodka as brands that have sold well in Asda as a result of being pushed in upmarket bars.
Wooing with wine
The average price of a bottle of wine sold at Asda is £4 and Australia is among its best selling countries. "Australia is hugely important for our customers. It's heavily branded, and shoppers get lots of reassurance from that," Carr says. The fruit-driven style of Australian wines also appeals to the Asda shopper, she adds.
French wine has recently made a comeback in Asda stores. "For a long time it was number one," Carr says. "We've seen a resurgence in interest. It's always been a benchmark for quality and style."
For many customers, wine is "potentially quite a confusing category", Carr believes. "We're doing a lot of research into how to make things easier for everybody," she says. Pairing food to wine will be a key part of Asda's marketing strategy when the revamped Extra Special range goes into stores. On the redesigned labels, Carr has written personalised tasting notes and suggestions of what foods suit each wine.
She has also introduced subtle differences on the descriptions to position the different wines at varying levels. For example, the more upmarket Côtes du Rhône Villages proposes is matched with herb roasted chicken or beef casserole, while the more basic Côtes du Rhône suggests spaghetti bolognese or sausage and mash. "Food and wine is a passion for me. A lot of people come to wine through food," Carr says.
An essential part of Carr's job is travelling around the world to source new wines. "I love visiting the vineyards and talking to the winemakers. The geography of a place, and the people and the history all click into place," she says. When choosing a wine, customers are equally interested its story, according to Carr. "More consumers are getting into the whole provenance and where wines come from."
Carr is honest about the way she compares her offering to other supermarket wines: "We benchmark them against what's happening in the market and seeing how our own wines do." This approach means that she is constantly adapting and evolving the range. "I'm always asking, is it as good as it can be?"
Responding to consumer demand is a key component of Carr's role: "You have to be careful as a buyer to remember that you're not buying for yourself and for your own tastes, you're buying on behalf of your customers - that's a big responsibility," she says.
Constantly catering to shoppers' preferences is also a thread running through Stewart's down-to-earth work ethic. "I'm an enthusiastic amateur, I don't profess to be a wine aficionado, I listen to what our customers tell us," he says.
Educating beer drinkers
Asda's beer range stands at 386, with lager accounting for 80 per cent of beer sales. Speciality ales are becoming an increasingly large part of the retailer's beer offering.
Education is vital in growing speciality beer sales, according to beer buying manager CJ Antal-Smith, who says that shopper research revealed that customers spend only one minute browsing the fixture. Tools such as shelf-edge barkers to describe more unusual styles are used to give shoppers knowledge, and every month a different beer is in the spotlight.
Asda's cider range continues to grow in both size and popularity. "It's really positive and reaching new markets. Lager drinkers are also coming into cider," Antal-Smith says. She sees big opportunities for selling a wider range of perries and premium ciders in Asda.
Local and regional breweries are strongly represented in the line-up as part of the retailer's commitment to stocking local products and supporting smaller breweries. Earlier this year Asda struck a deal with Liverpool brewer Cains, with stores across the north west stocking the brewery's full 10-strong range.
Traditionally high-profile sporting events have generated strong drinks sales for Asda. In 2006 during the football World Cup the supermarket emerged as a chief player by slashing beer prices to lower levels than those of 2005. During the tournament Asda reported that its market share had increased from 14.6 per cent to 19.4 per cent, outperforming the UK market. With Euro 2008 around the corner, Antal-Smith predicts an equally buoyant trading period.
It would be illogical for a retailer such as Asda to stop catering for the beerswilling masses who like nothing better than a cut price deal on a 24-pack of Stella. But with the retailer's recent moves to stock a more premium, quality-driven drinks offering, Asda looks well equipped to compete for the type of upmarket shopper that has traditionally favoured the drinks aisles of Waitrose or Sainsbury's. "I'm really excited about the future of BWS, we've got a great team in place and some very exciting plans," Stewart says.
Developments in 2007
Opening of four new stores including the first eco-store in Shaw, Oldham, which opened at the start of August
and includes a number of global sustainability initiatives, giving it a 15 per cent lower carbon footprint
25 scheme trialled in 10 Scottish stores to help eliminate sales of alcohol to under-18s
David Stewart takes over as category director
Embarked on a repositioning of its own-label Extra Special range
Introduction of detailed unit information on wine labels and a written warning to pregnant women
Extension of lower-alcohol wine range
Creation of bays dedicated to non-alcoholic beers launching in 120 stores in September
Increased focus on local sourcing and supporting smaller regional breweries
Cutting spirits range back by 30 per cent.
Vodka vindicated of targeting under-18s
The Portman Group has rejected a complaint against Asda which accused the supermarket of marketing its own-label vodka-based drinks to children.
A member of the public from Lincolnshire complained that the packaging on the brightly-coloured products, which featured images of creatures such as a scorpion and a lizard, would appeal to under-18s. Flavours in the vodka-based range include dandelion and burdock, raspberry and vanilla and tropical twist.
David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, said Asda had "successfully defended its marketing" and that the range was not intended to appeal to under-age drinkers.
panel accepted that the images were merely outline drawings and that the marketing was not targeted at under-18s," he said.
Parent company: Wal-Mart
Current size of estate: 388
Year founded: 1965 -
formed by a group of farmers
rival chain Gateway's superstores
in 1989. Bought by Wal-Mart in
Average bottle price: £4
number of shoppers
per week: 15 million