Pride of the north

27 July, 2007

After 160 years at the forefront of quality drinks retailing, Booths' key staff members celebrate by offering marketing tips and stock selection secrets, Laura Clark reports

With a reputation as the Waitrose of the

north, Booths' drinks offering is positioned at the upper end of the market. In 1884, founder Edwin Booth laid down his philosophy for the chain: "Sell the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed by first class assistants." Still entirely owned by the Booth family, with four members of the fifth generation now firmly in command, the business has maintained this mantra for 160 years, despite growing market pressure to slash prices and aggressively compete for market share.

Having borrowed £80 in goods from a Preston grocer who taught him his trade, 19-year-old tea dealer Booth opened his first shop in Blackpool in 1847. After setting up two more stores in Chorley and Preston, changes in the licensing law allowed him to move into the wine and spirits trade in 1863.

Booths now owns 25 stores across Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and

Cumbria. In September it is due to open a new shop in Lytham, Lancashire, which will be its second Booths Artisan outlet, stocking only regional specialist food and drink.

There are 780 wines in Booths' permanent range, 200 beers and 200 spirits, which are overseen by a three-strong buying team. The latest figures filed with Companies House show a profitable company that

increased its annual turnover by 7 per cent to £215 million in 2006.

The average price of a bottle of wine sold at Booths is £4.87, and Australia is its best -selling country. Following the market trend, France comes in second place. But off-promotion, French wine sales outstrip those from



Booths' wine buyer Sally Holloway attributes this trend to what she and her colleagues call "the Booths


"It's more European than the market

and favours the Old World classics," she explains.

Booths' top -selling red is from Australia, but more surprisingly its number one selling white is a Pinot Grigio from Hungary, priced at £3.99.

Holloway predicts big opportunities for Chile, which has already begun to take some sales from Australia as supply problems open up the market. "Chile's growing at a great rate, both on and off promotion," she says.

Over the coming 12 months, Holloway will carry out range reviews broken down by countries, with a particular focus on

the USA and Italy. "I'm trying to be a bit more open and I like to think we're quite flexible. You need a balance between new things and customers' favourites," she says.

Around half of Booths' wine sales are made on promotion, but Holloway is looking to decrease that proportion through paying closer attention to how to boost non-promotional sales. Methods include the introduction of Pick of the Bunch - an in-store feature

designed to advertise a more unusual wine at full


In June a biodynamic Ch âteau de Roquefort Corail from Provence

was in the spotlight: "Our wines are chosen on the basis of individuality and provenance," Holloway explains. Such promotions create an uplift of seven or eight times normal volumes, she adds.

With the nation in the grip of a rosé boom, Booths has seen pink sales grow by 18 per cent. But Holloway believes the rapid volume growth isn't sustainable, and predicts the market is nearing its peak. Booths has already begun to see drier styles overtake sales of sweeter blush wines, she adds.

Another success story for the retailer is English wine, with sales increasing by 40 per cent in the last year. Well-known brand Chapel Down is among the five English wines Booths currently stock . Holloway plans to significantly increase this number,

with the possibility of sourcing wine from vineyards in the north of England.

Holloway is honest about weaker areas in Booths' wine offering. "We were a bit slow on initially listing Fairtrade wines," she admits. "Originally I wasn't convinced of the quality of the wines and felt that they should stand on their own merits." As a result of increasing quality in recent vintages, Holloway's plan of action is to grow this area significantly in the coming months.

Pairing food and wine will be a key part of the chain's marketing strategy going into the autumn.

The decision to match wines to specific recipes

came after staff

said the most common question asked by shoppers was "what dish will go with this wine?" Holloway says: "It's an area that we want to develop,

in terms of helping them make that decision."

Beer buyer

Dave Smith is also enthusiastic about the potential of

cider and food collaboration. He sees premium cider as a perfect gift to take to a dinner party, but is not convinced that bottled beer can fulfil the same needs.

"The shape and size of cider bottles are suited to dinner parties, but beer won't be food associated until the industry makes moves to create a bottle to put on the dinner table," he says.

Out of Booths' 200-strong beer range, 55 hail from Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria. Local and regional breweries are strongly represented in the line-up including Three Bs Doff Cocker from Blackburn's Three Bs brewery and Skipton's Copper Dragon Challenger.

In an average week, three breweries will approach Smith for business: "I'm always open to having a look at the smaller suppliers, but they do need to have the capacity," he says.

Booths also stocks 50 premium ciders. Smith sees opportunities for selling a wider range of fruit-flavoured ciders after brands such as Scottish & Newcastle's Jacques

and Swedish Kopparberg Pear Cider

delivered strong sales. "The likes of Wetherspoons were getting quite different varieties of ciders in there, and I thought it was an opportunity that could spin off into our shops," he says.

Smith has also stripped a lot of canned beers out of the offering

and predicts a rise in bottled Polish brands as

the immigrant population swells.

Booths held a beer and cider festival across 18 of its stores this June. The event showcased more than 15 new beers and ciders from around the world

- including such far-flung places as New Zealand, Peru and Indonesia. During the festival, Booths

promoted more than 300 beers and ciders at the price of six bottles for five.

It also rolled out two new drinks made specially to celebrate its 160th birthday. Booths Anniversary Ale 160 was produced by Daleside Brewery in Harrogate

and Booths 1847 vintage cider by Westons

in Herefordshire . Booths also ran a competition for staff to design the cider's

front label.

Other staff incentives included a competition run across all stores to create a Peroni display promoting a shopper giveaway of a weekend in Rome.

Stores battled it out to win a £50 Booths voucher, with staff from the winning Kendall store

hanging a giant Peroni bottle from the ceiling, complete with streamers to look like the liquid flowing out of the bottle and Italian flags. In the Fulwood branch, one eager member of staff even dressed up as a

Roman soldier.


held its first ever two-week wine fair across 25 stores last October. The event was inspired by the Foire aux Vins which takes place across France every year, and featured more than 30 unusual and speciality wines.

Twelve magnum bottles of

Ch âteau d'Yquem were available on taste in stores as part of a wine tasting evening. "The idea was to get people thinking about different wines. It helped customers to focus on the range and maybe to trade up and try something different," Holloway says.

According to shopper research carried out by the retailer, 70 per cent of Booths' customers are women aged over 45 .

"We're looking to bring that age down," says Smith. Booths' push to attract younger shoppers and more men includes a recent burst of advertising on local radio stations

Rock FM and The Bay, and placing ads in Campaign for Real Ale magazines.

The only blip on Booths' horizon has been a decline in sales caused by bad weather. Spirits buyer Pete Newton blames a summer of rain for a slump in spirits sales. "The most obvious is Pimm's

- we are down massively," he says. But the cold weather has boosted malt whisky sales, which are traditionally strong winter sellers, he adds.

Wet weather also dampened beer sales during Booths' beer and cider festival. While volumes were on target, they would have been significantly better had the weather improved, according to Smith .

These are setbacks, certainly. But even Edwin Booth could not control the weather - and the Lancashire teenager who started it all in 1884 would doubtless raise a glass (or cup of tea) to the business that bears his name today.

Looking beyond the mainstream

When Pete Newton took over as Booths' spirits buyer last May he inherited a portfolio that was dominated by gin. " We overtrade

in certain areas

like gin. We don't have a weak vodka range, we just have a stronger gin range - it's quite the reverse of the market," he says.

Newton - who had previously been with the Co-op for 12 years - set about shaking up Booths' gin offering by listing less mainstream brands, such as Whitley Neill London


gin and Gonzalez Byass' new triple-distilled The London Gin. He also added Gabriel Boudier


gin, which is produced in small batches using a traditional pot still and contains eight fresh botanicals including


orange peel and

saffron. The gin was launched at Bar06 where it created huge interest.

At the end of last year, Booths

listed Hendrick's Gin, which has been "flying off the shelves", according to Newton, who took the decision not to have it on price promotion.

The key to selling spirits is in-store POS, rather than running cut-price promotions,

Newton says. "Not a lot of retailers get behind spirits in that way - if you cut the price, you're only selling it because of the price." He believes that because spirits are generally more expensive than beer or wine, shoppers won't risk buying unfamiliar spirits: "To educate customers you need to add some theatre and get people interested by demystifying the product and reducing the risk," he says.

In a move to guide shoppers, Booths merchandises its malt whiskies by region. Shelf-edge barkers feature maps of the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Campb eltown and Speyside, and provide descriptions of the common characteristics of malts from each of the regions.

Booths has also linked up with mixologists from Maxxium UK to train staff in help ing shoppers make cocktails at home. Every month all stores promote a specific cocktail, which is featured in a brochure sent out to 460,000 households and in its in-store magazine. This July a gin -based cocktail called English Garden - containing apple juice, elderflower juice and a squeeze of lime - is in the spotlight.

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