The appointment of Arabella Woodrow MW as head of Morrisons' wine buying team was the finale of a three-year drive by the supermarket to premiumise its wine offering. With her experience of retail , including stints at the Co-op, Forth Wines and Harveys of Bristol, Woodrow's appointment was a triumph for the retailer. Rather than being dismissed as "the one that used to be Safeway", Morrisons cement ed its position as a worthy competitor to Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose.
Morrisons' development of its drinks strategy was sparked by the acquisition of Safeway in 2004. The £3 billion take over saw the buying team faced with the daunting task of incorporating two supermarket ranges into one and what followed was a six-week frenzy of blind tastings and the culling of most of the 900 wines stocked by Safeway.
When Woodrow came in as licensed trading manager last October , from importer Myliko Wines, the range had been cut to just 550 . The portfolio she took charge of comprised 300 from the Morrisons portfolio, 150 from the Safeway list and 100 wines stocked by both supermarkets prior to the takeover.
Woodrow's first task was to taste and asses every wine . "I've now gone through the whole range and evaluated it. The number of wines in the range has stayed the same - what's changed is the balance," she says.
"We need to balance the right number for the right things. More of a single thing, like a country or grape variety, doesn't add choice - it makes it confusing. For example, Australia is the market leader, but you don't need a proportionate number of wines."
Off the beaten track
Woodrow wants to "offer choice" and ensure more unusual wines are represented with Morrisons' new in-store offering - a wine of the month.
The rolling promotion aims to shout about a wine "that's off the beaten track", Woodrow explains, emphasising that the wine should be popular with shoppers because of its exclusivity or uniqueness, rather than being sold on price promotion.
Featured wines will retail for £5 - £6.50 - a price Woodrow sees as affordable for shoppers, believing anything around £10 would be too expensive for a wine they are not familiar with. Coteaux du Giennois Blanc 2007, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, will be in the spotlight in July, selling for £4.99.
Woodrow's responsibilities include buying wines from Italy and Southern France. She sees big opportunities for Morrisons to grow its French wine sales . "There's a lot of untapped potential in France," she says. Woodrow also believes Italy "has a lot of offer ", but says the country's numerous DOCs are confusing to the consumer and act as a barrier to sales. "People see it as difficult to understand - Italy has more DOCs than France has cheeses."
One of Woodrow's most recent tasks was selecting the 139 wines for Morrisons' annual press tasting, which took place on April 23 at London's Imagination Gallery. Condensing a 550-strong range into a "fair snapshot" was no easy job, Woodrow says. "We wanted a fair representation of the new wines while trying to show the depth of a range."
Newcomers included six rosés , one a Spanish dessert wine - Moscatel De Valencia rosé from Bodegas Murviedro - and two Chinese wines. Morrisons' range of lower alcohol wines has also been given a boost with the addition of an Aussie pair - Salena Estate Quill Series Chardonnay and Shiraz, which retail for £5.99 and have a 9.5% abv.
Sales of Morrisons The Best own-label are strong, says Woodrow, who adds the retailer was deliberately late in entering the own-label scene. "About 10 years ago everybody had them and you staked your reputation on them. Generic own-label became synonymous with cheap. The Best is a proper expression of grape varieties or regions."
The range, launched in 2006, currently stands at 16 wines and includes a French Viognier and Merlot, Mosel Riesling, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenère, Californian Chardonnay and Zinfandel, a Reserva Rioja, Australian Shiraz, South African Pinotage and a vintage cava.
Morrisons' has also concentrated on developing its line-up of 12 organic wines, which includes a Spanish Airen, Tempranillo and Shiraz, Cotes Du Rhône Villages, Corbiéres and Greek Merlot/Cabernet blend.
Woodrow describes Morrisons' current range as accommodating the big names while also catering for consumers wanting something more unusual. She says: "More and more people are looking for something with complexity and elegance . Not all consumers are the same. Yes you've got to tick the mass-market boxes but you can't generalise. We're always going to have big brands we wouldn't drink ourselves, but people feel reassured by brands."
Woodrow is honest about weaker areas in Morrisons' wine offering and highlights Fairtrade as something that needs developing. "It's on the radar," she says, but before the retailer concentrates on Fairtrade, she wants to ensure the ethical message is clear to shoppers. "It's got to be specific [and show] why it's beneficial . Organic was the same at first, customers had to understand it. It's now mainstream and natural for people to choose organic wines."
Woodrow is enthusiastic about the potential of wine and food matching. "It's no accident that what goes best with Italian food is Italian wine . It's the same with French or Spanish wine - the recipes have been developed for centuries to match the food made in that country." But Woodrow is reluctant to reveal whether pairing food and wine will be a marketing strategy for the retailer .
Just weeks into Woodrow's new position, Morrisons was rocked by some high-profile departures from its drinks buying team. Wine trading manager Stuart Purdie left after 16 years, and long-serving licensed trades director John Spurs retired. Senior spirits buyer Jane Pearson also left, and wine buyer James Jackson moved to a new position in the food department.
At the time, the Morrisons' PR machine was tight-lipped about the departures and Woodrow won't be drawn into discussing whether the exit of Purdie and Spurs weakened the team. But she does promise an imminent announcement of "the new recruits".
Latest figures from Morrisons show a n increase i n pre-tax profit to £612 million, up from £369 million in 2006. Like-for-like sales, excluding fuel sales, rose 4.6%, down from 5.2% in 2007. With its store refurbishment programme on track to complete in July, and plans to open eight new stores and extend 19 more in the coming year, Morrisons looks well placed to continue its drive to lure shoppers away from the food aisles of the top three grocers.
For Woodrow, this migration is being replicated in the drinks aisles, with customers becoming increasingly aware that, alongside the big-name brands, Morrisons also boasts a less mainstream, premium wine selection fit to rival the big three. "We're trying to have something that appeals to everyone and it's a range I'm very proud of," she says.