The news that Britain’s independent merchants have not rushed to join a “Specialist Drinks Retailers” buying group has apparently come as a disappointment to Anthony Borges, the retailer who has been trying to establish it for around a decade.
Other members of the UK wine trade may be similarly disappointed over the next years or so to discover that these same independents are not going to solve quite as many of their problems as they seem to suppose. Stated simply, they are not going to be the US Cavalry riding to the rescue of a fort besieged by discount-obsessed supermarkets.
The problem is firstly that they are really not that numerous. According to most estimates, there are around 700. This number needs to be set against the mass of Wine Racks, Threshers, Oddbins, Bottoms Ups, Gough Bros, Fullers, Unwins and Davisons that have all disappeared. By my estimate, a maximum of some 400 new players are expected to replace the 4000 or so that have disappeared.
Secondly, there’s their firepower. The average turnover for these retailers is around £500,000 which will come from the sale of 200-400 different wines, plus a few spirits and beers. You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that a store that is one of the many turning over £300,000 – £1000 or so per day – is not going to get through large numbers of £15-30 bottles of wine. And, as my previous post illustrates, these are the kinds of retail prices required by any producer wanting to sell wine at anything over €6 or $8. The recent Off Licence News Wine Report UK wine trade poll reveals that 62.5% of the suppliers see “small minimum delivery drops” being a barrier to trading with independents. A larger number, 68% see this sector as a “small” part or “less than half” of their business.
But lastly, there’s that word “independent”. Most of these retailers see their role as offering wines that not only differ from the ones on the big chains’ shelves, but also from their independent neighbours. This may be good news for dynamic distributors like Bibendum, Liberty and Enotria which have extensive ranges, but of little help to premium producers hoping to sell substantial amounts of their wine here. The independents collectively swallow plenty of pallets but not many containers. They’ll try to buy widely and – in some cases – do a little of their own shipping, but their limited resources will restrict their ambitions. Many, like their on-trade counterparts, will happily rely on a couple of handfuls of suppliers. Or fewer.
The rumours, as I write this, are that two more well-known UK importers are about to close their doors – or be swallowed by stronger competitors. This is a trend that I cannot see going into reverse anytime soon.
My instincts are that, despite my own – and others’ – respect and affection for Britain’s plucky independent wine retailers, when we look back on this decade, a far greater role in any revival of the premium wine sector will probably have been played by supermarket on-line efforts, and by online specialists like Laithwaites and Slurp.