The rural village of Nether
Wallop has to be one of the most unusual locations for an off-licence. In the heart of
the Hampshire countryside, Trout Wines shares its surroundings with a handful of stunning period buildings, an idyllic Saxon church and a herd of
contented cows. But even more unusual than its location is the fact that Trout Wines is the only off-licence, and only shop, within a 12-mile radius.
In a world where drinks stores jostle for space on overcrowded high streets and fight a daily battle with the supermarket giants that spring up with alarming speed on every street corner, you could be
forgiven for thinking that owner Anthony Whitaker has it easy.
But how easy is it to run a successful off-licence that also serves the needs of an isolated community - and all from a small room off the side of a 17th century thatched cottage? OLN talks to Whitaker about the challenges he faces and his unique perspective on the off-trade.
What made you choose to set up an off-licence in your own home?
I've been in the wine trade for years, starting out as a van driver for a wine company. I became interested in what I was carting about, so I went to work for Oddbins and in 18 months got my intermediate and advanced WSET, and then the first half of the diploma. After working for various wine companies, I was made redundant on my 39th birthday. With a third child on the way, my wife and I decided it was time for a change.
A family friend told us about a house that had come on the market in Nether Wallop, and in August 1993 we moved in. It's been possible to buy alcohol from the premises since the 1850s, and we decided to continue to run it as a shop. But it was oppressively gloomy; the shelves were dark brown and the ceiling was nicotine-stained. We bought £2,000 worth of wine from the previous owner, who had run his stock right down. He had even been
buying wine from Majestic, marking it up and putting it on the shelves.
How do you decide what to stock?
We sell wines that people can't find anywhere else. We can't match the supermarkets on price, so we have to find something else to mark us out. Shipping direct gives us exclusivity, but it takes up a lot of room to store 50 bottles of the same wine, which is sometimes hard to shift. At full capacity, I stock around 160 wines, priced from £4.99 up to £30.
Do you avoid well-known brands?
You have to sell certain brands - like
Gordon's, Famous Grouse or Boddingtons - and I find myself grinding my teeth when I order drinks like Harveys Bristol Cream. When is a brand not a brand? I don't stock Gallo or Blossom Hill because I always bear in mind that if I can't sell it, my family and I will have to drink it. The criterion is that we personally like it. Until recently we've been a grand marque-free zone because I don't want to compete with the antics of the supermarkets, but I've just decided to change and stock
Bollinger. I'll wait to see how it does.
You say you don't want to compete with the antics of the supermarkets. Do you have any criticisms of the big players?
There's a lack of personalisation in chains. Trout Wines is a very personal business and I build up very close relationships with my customers, and think of lots of them as friends. There's a dialogue between me and the customers, which you wouldn't find at a supermarket. I can always remember what people bought the last time, which is a useful thing to be able to do because it shows that you care about people's custom. The girl behind the Tesco checkout wouldn't do that. Wine has a magical power; people come in and talk about it for hours. You couldn't do that in Threshers. Wearing my
consumer hat, I think supermarkets are wonderful and do fantastic deals; but wearing my rival retailer hat I find myself asking how they ever make any money.
Does your isolated location mean it's hard to make money?
I find everyone in the village really relies on the shop. Being the only shop in a given area is unusual in the wine world. Some services we offer - like newspaper delivery or selling groceries - are time- consuming and a bit of a bugbear, but they're an important service in the village even if they don't bring in much money.
What additional services do you offer to increase turnover?
We sell cookery equipment in the shop because my wife is an Aga demonstrator. We form a double act, with wine tastings after Sarah's demonstrations. I also deliver within a 20-mile radius of Nether Wallop and in London about once a month, or to places where my wife visits for her work. In addition, we're at the stage of setting up a website. It's not going to be an all-singing, all-dancing one like Berry Bros & Rudd, but it will show people what we stock.
What are the best and worst things about having an off-licence in your own home?
One of the hardest things is when you're stuck in a traffic jam knowing someone is waiting on your doorstep. We've been known to ask the neighbours to put a note up on the door explaining when the shop will open. The beauty of being self-employed is making your own decisions. For example, we used to open at 9.30 but found that the shop was always empty. So after canvassing customers we decided to change our opening times. You work on the basis of supply and demand. The great thing about having my own shop is that I don't have to follow blueprints; I'm also amazed there's a need for them at all. You shouldn't be running a business if you can't even work out where to put your stock.
Is advertising beneficial for a small shop like yours?
I'm not convinced it makes that much
difference. I've tried various ploys, like printing a flyer in a newspaper to offer a 10 per cent discount - but it didn't bring many new customers in - or sending out a leaflet called 10 Things You Didn't Know About Trout Wines. The local newspaper asked me to write a wine article once a month, and I used it to promote the shop. But advertising hasn't really proved its worth, so I often think, why bother?
What are the biggest changes that you've seen in the drinks industry?
It's changed dramatically. A lot of it has been for the better, but I've also noticed that so much more of the trade is run by the accountants and the marketing men. Take alcopops: they're a creation of the marketing department. You see posed pictures of these young things clutching bottles with the brand names pointed at the camera. I find myself loath to stock them. I've also found that wine has become a commodity, and good wine is so much more than that.