Unconventional convenience

05 September, 2008

Cocovino in Brighton has fought through tough times and turned

into a thriving business.

Christine Boggis talks to its


If you were running a struggling Mace Express just around the corner from a new Tesco Express, a licensing condition that says your customers can't pick bottles from shelves themselves might just be the final straw. But for Christine Parkinson, wine buyer for the Hakkasan chain of restaurants, it was the starting point for creating a quirky, individual and accessible wine shop with a core convenience offering.

Instead of lining bottles up on shelves she has them bolted into bespoke, ladder-like racks on the walls, each with a handwritten tasting note. Customers can touch the bottles and read the labels, but if they want to buy them they have to ask at the counter. The shop's convenience heritage shows in buckets of baked beans

and cleaning products

dotted around among the eclectic and rapidly changing wine selection. Parkinson and her team have done nearly everything themselves, from decorating the shop to designing its web pages. She tells OLN all about it.

Why did you decide against being a conventional wine merchant?

Fifty per cent of wine drinkers buy in a supermarket because they are scared of going into a wine merchant. I

thought, "I want that 50%". I also thought, "why shouldn't they have a good wine -buying experience?" Supermarkets can be fine but it can be

much nicer in a small shop.

What is the thinking behind your layout?


way we sell

wine in the shop is geared

to the premise that you might not know much about wine, but you can go away with an interesting wine and feel comfortable. We group everything under food wines, special occasion, easy

drinking, and something di fferent.


ask ed everyone

we know working in wine shops, "what do people come in and say?" They don't say "I want an old vine Pinot Noir", they don't say "have you got anything from Argentina high altitude", or "have you got a blend of Grenache and Syrah". They say: "I 've got someone coming over

and I want a bottle of wine", or I have got to buy a bottle as a present. The


is that we have

the answer to those questions.

Is it a problem that your licensing conditions mean people can't pick bottles up?

I couldn't bear the thought

of them behind glass - people


to read the label and

once people have touched it, they often buy it .

Do you sell online as well?


is technically live but we are doing test purchases at the moment.

There is a wine finder which asks

if you want a wine for food, a special occasion or whatever . If you click on food there are about 10 choices, from fish and chips to seafood to Sunday roasts to chocolate.

What is the most difficult thing about running a small wine shop?

It is the red tape . I still haven't recovered from the so-called revision of the


Act, which makes it six times as expensive and creates about 12 times as much paperwork to

apply . My Mum is employed full-time

doing paperwork for the shop, which seems


What is the worst bit? The red tape is appalling but the deregulation of things like energy and phone calls mea ns that, as well as the government driving you round the bend and costing you money, there are private companies that now have the right to completely take the piss and cost you a fortune - for poor value and massive amounts of effort. We desperately need to find a cheaper energy supplier, but it is

incredibly difficult , as well as formidably expensive - and that is on top of all the legal obligations.

I think small businesses have

been almost punch drunk with how much they have been hit with over the last four to five years. Many years ago I had a catering business and it was

nowhere near as bad then. Even

putting our A-board outside is expensive and involves

paperwork. And don't even start me on refuse collection.

A re you standing up to Tesco Express these days?

It doesn't affect us any more, but it nearly destroyed us. My Dad put in a third of his savings

to keep us afloat.

Overnight it nearly wiped 40% off our turnover

- it was vicious. What was so terrible was that apart from the headline items, most

products were the same price or more expensive than

ours, and the headline items were cheaper than we could buy them and still are. We got our revenge on Christmas Day when they were closed and we were open. We prepared a poster and stuck it on their door on Christmas Day, and it made us feel so much better. We snuck back and took it down before they opened again, but we were here giving a service and their doors were closed. That summed it up really.

Cocovino factfile

Run by Christine Parkinson, wine buyer for Hakkasan, and Annette Scarfe,

ex-banker turned wine consultant and educator

Converted from Mace Express

Still has core convenience, newsagent and dry -cleaning services as well as gift wines and gift wrapping

Turnover around £9,000 a week, after dropping to £6,500 a week when Tesco Express opened nearby

Wine sales by the bottle have grown 35% in the past year

Range: 50 red, 50 white, 10-12 rosť, 12-15 sparkling, 8-10 sweet wines; core beer and spirits

Cheapest wines are Borsao 2007 Maccabeo Campo de Borja red and white at £5.30; the most expensive are magnums of Champagne, with top-price

still wine bottles including CŰtes de Nuits Villages at £17.90

All whites, pinks and sparklers are chilled in fridges behind the counter

Themed tasting every Saturday

Parkinson and Scarfe met as they are both studying for the Master of Wine, mentored by Peter McCombie MW.

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