The business was set up by Dawn Mannis and Jamie Hutchinson 10 years ago, when they opened a store in London’s Islington replete with an array of gleaming Enomatic machines to allow shoppers to try before they buy.
It opened a second, larger store in Kensington in 2010 and has been quietly getting on with business as usual, but has decided that 2016 is the year to set out on the expansion trail.
Buyer Ben Slater has curated a trade list that is predominantly targeting high-end restaurants, while the business sees strong potential to develop private client sales, while keeping online and en primeur ticking over.
Hutchinson has stepped down as managing director and is now based in France, but retains the role of chairman and head buyer.
Philip Beavan has been brought in to replace him, or as Mannis puts it “to help us wine nerds with all the sensible things”.
Beavan, whose background is in luxury footwear retailing, told OLN: “They didn’t want someone with wine knowledge as managing director. The thing I have been more excited about since I joined 10 months ago is that we have this great retail concept that could work in many locations in London and outside of London. I have been putting some retail basics in place.
“We are spending this year getting out house in order. We ended last year flat like-for-like. In the first quarter of 2016 we have had a double-digit increase across the two stores.
“We plan to open one to two new stores towards the end of this year. We are also refurbishing both existing stores. We know where we are going to target. When we open the next stores we will go back to our roots with Islington.
“We will experiment with six to eight machines rather than the full 10 [which it has at its Kensington store] and a slightly smaller square footage of maybe 800 to 1,000 sq ft [Kensington is 2,000; Islington is 1,000].”
Over the past 10 years, sampling machines have become a common fixture across the retail trade. Slater said: “More people have the machines now, so eventually it all boils down to the core things for any wine business – range and staff and customer service. Now that everyone has machines and the playing field has been levelled what you are selling and how you are selling it becomes more important.”
Mannis despairs of the current ranges in supermarkets and believes indies like The Sampler can capitalise. “When I go into a supermarket I always look at the wine range and I don’t see any improvement, I don’t see anything exciting,” she said.
“I like the way Waitrose has cornered the English wine market, but it’s a bit depressing if you go into Sainsbury’s or Tesco. Sainsbury’s has some dreadful sugary wine and it’s not even that cheap. We have wines that are £8-£10 that are so much better than supermarket wines and that’s what I find annoying. People could come to their local wine merchants and get something much better.
“Our average sale price is £26-£28, it’s really high, but we have these sub-£10 wines and I wish people would realise that and get away from the idea that independents are all expensive.”