The sweet taste of success

21 January, 2011

Consumers have always loved a bargain. Independent wine merchants might argue that their customers are different: that they are not motivated by price, they simply want great wine. Well, yes, they do want a fantastic product – but they would rather pay £7.50 than £10 for it, given the choice.

Most serious independents worked out some time ago that they can’t compete with the supermarkets, at least at the volume end of the market. The only reason Asda and Tesco can afford to offer three-for-£10 or two-for-£8 deals is that they have huge buying power and the ability to shift volumes through hundreds of shops. For independents, such promotions would be suicidal, except perhaps as a means of clearing problem stock.

Discounting can still play a role. Most independents offer case discounts, and more than a third run some other multibuy mechanic such as two-for-£10. Experienced specialists, however high-end, recognise that even customers who can afford to spend £60 on a single bottle like to balance out their purchase with some simple, great-value wines they feel they can trust.

The most effective way of promoting wine, however, is to let your customers try it. When OLN surveyed its database of independents and asked them which promotions worked best, sampling and tastings emerged as the runaway winner, ahead of case discounts, multibuys and straightforward price cuts.

Tastings can take many forms. They can be ad hoc, if you’re prepared to open a bottle of something good for a customer who is generally a big spender. Or you might always have two or three bottles available for sampling.

The last government dropped dark hints about controlling this sort of tasting, and it could well be that, in future, police or Trading Standards officers may take an interest in the amount of wine you’re giving away. But for now, in-store tastings generally go unmolested by the authorities.

Arguably the most impressive wine-sampling experience in a retail setting takes place at the Sampler, a wine merchant in Islington and South Kensington in London. The company has invested in Enomatic machines that dispense small quantities of wine, at the correct temperature, to customers who have bought a smart card from the till. Credits are used up depending on the price of the wine being tried.

The machines each cost thousands of pounds and may require some amendments to your premises licence if you plan to install more than a few. The devices are profitable in their own right but also generate full-bottle sales.

For those who are not in that sort of league, it’s important to establish a good rapport with your key suppliers so that you can obtain some free stock for use in tastings. Most will have something available and, provided you’re not merely using the freebies as full-priced stock, you should find that the supply is never-ending.

Many retailers enjoy the intimacy of an after-hours, shop-based tasting for their key customers – though it’s also worth talking to on-trade associates about using their rather grander facilities. Make friends with local wine societies and other groups, and offer to conduct tutored tastings for them. It will cost you time, effort and possibly wine, but bear in mind the benefits may not be apparent until new customers appear in your store days, weeks or months later.

One thing retailers sometimes forget is that the general public is pretty confused by the whole concept of wine tasting: half of them assume it’s merely a cheap way of getting blitzed, while the other half fret that they are going to be exposed as a know-nothing dimwit. You need to put both camps right. Never assume that your audience knows anything about nosing, swirling or spitting – and, equally, don’t try to expose anybody’s ignorance. Your guests are meant to be having fun, and if they’re having fun you’ll make some money.




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Welcoming the wine rookie

It’s all true. Wine writers loaf around in a state of partial inebriation and partial undress, bitching about having to taste free wine all day and using recondite words like malolactic, terroir and recondite. 

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