When Mark Robinson and Jonathan Brantigan decided to quit the Big Smoke and
create their own business, the plan was to go for a new-start delicatessen and wine merchant.
They ended up buying the established Pallant
of Arundel in West Sussex, a store that had traded under that name for 15 years, in a building that had provided a home for food and drink retailers for
more than 100 years.
But the pair haven't been standing still
- they have revamp ed the deli, shifting the wine emphasis from Old to New World, introduc ed locally-made beer, cider and wine, and are attempting to change the way local people think about their wine shopping by pre-empting the Sainsbury's shift to merchandising by style ahead of country of origin.
A year after taking over the business, Robinson - a former shop-floor worker in the Selfridges wine department and an assistant wine buyer at Fortnum & Mason - explains how it's all happened.
What made you buy an established business rather than start your own?
We wanted to get out of London and be near the south coast, as I've got family down here. We were thinking more Hampshire or Dorset and took six months out to see what there was. While we were doing that this place came on the market.
At first we thought we wouldn't be able to do it, but when we looked at the books we saw it was possible and that the business had a lot of potential. We could spend the next five years looking for a location as good as this and still not find it, and the rent was still at
a reasonable rate compared to other high street locations.
How have you set about making changes?
One drawback of buying an established business is you inherit everything with it and you can't change things overnight. You can look at a product and wonder why you're selling it, but when you try to get rid of it you find you've got five or six customers who say they've been buying it here for 20 years. It takes quite a long time to put your own stamp on it.
For the first six months we decided to just find out how the business worked. We've kept the same staff because they're so good and we all get on. This year we've done a bit of re investment, decorating various sections and putting new deli counters in the front of the shop. It's beginning to change.
you consider changing the name?
You can set about spending a lot of money changing the logos and signs and websites, but people know you and would still probably call us Pallants, so we've decided to stick with it.
How has the product range changed?
The previous owner was French so it was predominantly French wine - perhaps 80%. It's not been a huge change†- it's probably only gone down to around 60%. As far as the wines are concerned we've brought in New World wines and more Italian wines, and just tried to diversify a bit more. But we've also tried to rationalise the range. There were a lot of wines with just two or three bottles stocked, and a lot of things didn't really work. So we had a big bin end sale to get rid of a lot of stuff because it was outgrowing the space we have.
What's your customer base like?
There are a lot of elderly residents but at the weekend there are lots of younger people coming in who possibly work up in London during the week. People are being a little bit more cautious at the moment and not buying as much fine wine or malt whisky. But we sell mainly in the £6 -10 price range on wine anyway. We†try to get a wine of the month in at £4.99 or £5.49 and do tastings on that. You need to be a bit clever about buying seasonally, so we buy more whites than reds in the summer and give them more space, and then have more old school clarets going through into the autumn and towards Christmas.
changed the way you merchandise, under such headings
as "bone dry"
for white, for example. What's the thinking behind that?
People often come in and buy a particular cheese or a meal at the front of the shop, so they're probably looking for a wine to go with that rather than looking to buy a French wine in particular. Within "bone dry" all the Chablis
are grouped together, but it's trying to get people thinking differently about how they buy wine. You don't tend to get people come in and say: "Where are all your Chablis " It's been interesting to see how people
And what styles are selling?
Certainly people have moved away from heavy-oaked whites and big jammy reds to fresher, lighter styles, so Pinot Noir is doing quite nicely
and Sauvignon Blanc as opposed to Chardonnay. People are getting a bit bolder and trying things like Viognier and Chenin Blanc, and trying more aromatic styles, such as
Alsace. People want something that's versatile, that they can drink as an aperitif as well as with food.
How have customers responded to your changes?
A few of the die-hard customers are a bit disappointed that their favourite Burgund ies aren't still on the shelves, but there are so many more people coming in and picking up more accessible Australian and New Zealand wines. I don't think we've lost too many people - and we've gained a lot more and managed to persuade people to try other things. We're modernising without being too radical about it.