Are you doing the right things to attract the best staff?

That sounds interesting. What do you mean by ‘the right things’.?

I mean are you putting on a good enough show for people to want to come to your company and join in. The days of just putting out a job advert and waiting for all the CVs to fly in are over. Yes, you will still get lots of CVs to make you feel popular, but are they coming from the kind of person you really want to recruit. The best talent knows they are in demand and will take their time, do their homework and effectively pick and choose where they look to work. What’s more they won’t be happy just taking a job and sitting still for a couple of years. They will expect to be pushed, they will demand to be trained, they will constantly be looking for the next challenge and career opportunity and assessing whether your business can provide it for them or not.

My god they sound like a right bunch of prima donnas straight out of Fame Academy.

Welcome to the job market in 2019! You have to remember the new generation of job seekers have probably already invested tens of thousands into their own education and training and are looking for companies and career paths that allow them to make the most of that investment. They have also grown up in the connected age of the internet, social media and the smartphone. They have access to in-depth information about any business they are interested in and how they compare to others. They want to know what a potential future employer can offer them, rather than simply worry about what skills they have.

Sounds like you are talking about the much maligned millennial?

Got it in one. Gallup's latest report, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, reveals 59% of millennials say opportunities to ‘learn and grow’ are extremely important to them when applying for a job. In fact it is their number one reason. Compared to 44% of Generation Xers and 41% of Baby Boomers. That then increases to 87% when they are actually in the job, versus 69% of non-millennials. So if you’re not investing in your staff by offering what they see as meaningful training and development then you are going to lose them. Millennials, says Gallup, don't feel entitled, they feel empowered. They want to expand their knowledge and skills, they want to be useful, and they want their work and workplace to have meaning to them. They also expect a lot of their managers who they want to “invest in their futures, hone their skills and coach them to become the best workers they can be”. No pressure then.

OK, so what about those who were born after millennials - Generation Z?

You mean the current generation of school leavers and graduates? They are, or will be, entering the job market having lived through their school days being constantly analysed, graded, and assessed. Recruitment specialists say they will be even more choosy and demanding about their careers, but they will also be even more selective about the type of company they work for. What values they have? What charities they support? How inclusive they are? What’s the gender and ethnic balance of staff? Where do they rate in terms of equal pay, and what percentage of senior staff are women or come from an ethnic background? Information that should be freely and openly available and you will be judged badly if it is not. That’s long before they get round to sharing with you what their hobbies and areas of interest are.

So they are not impressed by a work canteen and free vending machine then?

Hardly. A study by the Institute for Public Relations reveals 47% of millennials won’t take a job if the company is not walking the walk on diversity. Millennials are more focused on what Lisen Stromberg, chief operating officer at The 3% Movement, calls “subjective outcomes, not objective results” which effectively means you can’t just tick the diversity box with the right respective quotas of women and those from an ethnic background. “Diversity, inclusion and belonging needs to be deeply embedded into the DNA of your company’s culture,” adds Stromberg.

Anything else?

Then, as a drinks company, or business that sells alcohol, you have the issue of how appealing you are to a generation of 16-21 year olds where nearly a quarter have never had an alcoholic drink and those that do have been brought up in a climate of health risks and moderation. Do you really want to work for a company where you will be expected to drink as part of your daily, or at least weekly, life. As a teetotaller, or very moderate drinker, the drinks industry is going to be way down on your pecking order. It’s quite likely not to be on it at all. If you do have a drink at that age, it’s more likely to be a pint of beer, cider, a shot, or a cocktail. Where does wine even sit on your radar? Never mind the idea of going to work for a company that only sells a product you never drink and know next to nothing about?

Well, this is rather depressing.

Sorry about that. It’s more of a wake up call to think about how attractive your business is to new recruits. You might be one of the best performing companies in wine, but how do you compare to other sectors and what the most sought after businesses and industries are doing. Like the technology giants Google, Apple, or Amazon. Look at how they recruit new talent. They have dedicated parts of their business and teams of staff whose job is to find the next best workers. They run extensive work experience programmes, open days for local schools and full blown apprenticeship schemes that offer guaranteed jobs at the end of them. Sky TV, for example, has a team of five dedicated to just running its apprenticeship programme, and offers multiple ways for young people to work there. How serious are you about training and development? Yes, you might offer WSET wine courses, but so what. That’s the bare minimum. How are you helping your staff grow as people, as employees and not just their ability to pick out a Grüner Veltliner in a blind tasting?

And finally?

Investing in staff makes sense from a long term business point of view. Let’s go back to the Gallup study. It discovered that 93% of millennials left their company the last time they changed roles. Whilst the reasons for leaving varied, they mainly switched companies because they believed they had little or no opportunity for growth where they were. So if that sounds like your business, you’re wasting a lot of time recruiting staff you are never going to hold on to.

  • This article was first published in Grapevine, the fortnightly insights newsletter I produce for The London Wine Fair.

Why everything but alcohol is now the biggest threat to wine

What’s this? Don’t tell me you are trying to shoe-horn Dry January into your latest posturings?

Oh, you can see right through me. Well, seeing as the rest of the world is obsessing about what we are eating and drinking this month there’s no harm in joining them, but with a new twist. Yes, there are apparently more people every year locking away the corkscrew for the whole of January and either going teetotal, or at least looking to cut back on what they are drinking. A habit many now continue into February and beyond. But this is not just postponing drinking until our second monthly gym membership goes out of our account. No, people are looking to stop drinking full stop.

Well, good for them. There’s plenty more for the rest of us...

That’s very good of you. Thanks for your support, but it’s not good news for the drinks industry in the long run. At least not unless it completely turns on its head what it is there to do. The long term drinking trends show how more people are listening to the health warnings and watching what they drink. This is particularly so amongst younger people and the next generation of drinkers that the industry, let's face it, will rely on to start drinking in the future. A recent study by the University College London claims 29% of 16 to 24-year-olds now see themselves as teetotal, compared to 18% in 2005. Those who have never sipped a mouthful of alcohol has jumped from 9% to 17%. So any amount of wine education or promotion is going to be lost on close to a fifth of the young drinking population. It’s a similar trend amongst older drinkers. The Office for National Statistics reports the proportion of adults who say they drink alcohol is at the lowest level on record - 56.9% in 2018 compared to 64.2 per cent in 2005.

If that’s the case, what can you do? You can’t force them to drink...

Of course not, but we would be fools to just ignore all the millions of consumers that no longer even think about going down the drinks aisle at all in the local supermarket or order even one glass of wine in a restaurant. Just look at what the big brewers are doing. They have been on top of this trend for years, but particularly so in the last five years. All the major brewers have now got seriously ambitious plans to change their production away from traditional beers to creating products that they can sell to the growing abstemious or non-drinking population. AB Inbev, the world’s largest brewer, has pledged that 20% of its sales will be for low or no alcohol beers by 2025. If that’s the case we can expect to see the low or no-alcohol beer category rise considerably from the £34.7m it reached in the year to July 2018, which in itself was a jump of 20.5% on the year before (Nielsen).

Really, what are they doing?

Just look at the big product launches that have come out of the big brewers in the last two years. The majority have been around lower and no alcohol, like Heineken’s 0.0. These are not just PR driven moves to get some good publicity, but vital brand saving major global launches designed to not just transform the beer and drinks industry, but keep themselves in business in the decades to come.

But they have tried low alcohol beers before and they have crashed and burned.

They have indeed, but there are three key reasons why these new launches have every chance of success. There is now a growing consumer market that wants them; the quality of the products have improved dramatically in the last two years; and they can now be served, perfectly chilled by draught, in the same way you would buy any other beer. The last point is arguably the real game changer. Ninety per cent of beer sold in pubs is by draught. Heineken, for example, is about to invest a huge amount in rolling out draught versions of its 0.0 brand, to pubs and bars across the country after an enormously successful trial last year. Its chief executive, David Forde, expects sales of 0.0 to double to 30m bottles this year as a result .

Good for them. Why is that important to us?

It’s who Forde sees as the biggest competition to Heineken 0.0 that should make every wine executive, producer and retailer sit up and take notice. He’s not looking to take on Molson Coors or AB Inbev, but instead has the soft drinks and coffee giants such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Costa Coffee firmly in his sights. “We believe we can go on the offensive and go after Coke, go after Fanta, go after spring water, go after tea, go after coffee,” he told the Daily Mail last week. “If you think about all the occasions that people drink a soft drink today – we can be in that market.”

So where does leave wine?

Good question, for this is as relevant for wine as it is for any other drinks category. Arguably even more so now that it is officially the most popular alcoholic drink on a night out, is the go to choice for most women and is what we traditionally choose to drink when eating out. It’s fair to say the majority of attempts to make a quality low or no alcohol wine have failed. Things are changing and, as with beer, the more major producers and brand owners that try, the better they are getting at producing brands and styles we might like. But we are not there yet.

What does the wine industry need to do?

For a start it can take a long, hard look at what the big beer brands are doing. It’s not just about getting the product right. That’s a given. Its how you then serve it. Wine needs to look at alternative ways to make low and no alcohol wines interesting and relevant to drinkers who may not even own a corkscrew. It’s time to stop thinking about ourselves as being only part of the alcohol drinks industry. If we want to have a long term future and be relevant to consumers down the line, we need to start thinking of how we could be considered part of the soft drinks industry too.

Helmets on! Here's what we can expect in 2019...

Oh dear. Seems you have been drinking from a half full glass this Christmas?

Well, it’s hard to hop, skip and jump into the new year considering the 12 months we have just had. If you created one of those word clouds to describe how businesses of all sizes felt about 2018, then arguably the most prominent, underlined and bolded out for maximum effect, would have been “uncertainty”. Time and again industry leaders, from whatever sector you could think of, complained it was the “uncertainty” of doing business in 2018 that was dominating every decision they made and holding them back going into 2019.

First week into the new year and you’re straight back into Brexit.

When it comes to talking about business and what is likely to be in store for the year ahead, it’s impossible not to start, and end, with Brexit. Particularly as we have now entered the final quarter of the great Brexit countdown. That “uncertainty” will ratcheted even more as we await the fate of the nation and quite how the UK will finally leave the European Union on March 29 - even if we leave or not is uncertain. The UK wine industry has been stuck in this Brexit no man’s land, struggling to know how our ports, transport and customs systems are going to cope if we crash out of the EU without a deal. The fact government ministers and Treasury officials went into their Christmas recess with serious talk of a so called “managed no deal” propped up with emergency contingency funding stretching to billions of pounds, would have had the collective wine trade reaching for the port with even more gusto over the festive period.

“The first half of 2019 looks set to be one of the biggest business rollercoasters we have ever been on if our politicians can’t be trusted to sort out the Brexit impasse. ”

Sounds like we need to carry on drinking the port then.

Indeed. The first half of 2019 looks set to be one of the biggest business rollercoasters we have ever been on if our politicians can’t be trusted to sort out the Brexit impasse. The only good news is at least, eventually, we will all know where we stand come March 29, 2019. There will finally be certainty to all those months of uncertainty, even if it means Article 50 ends up being extended and the proverbial Brexit can is kicked further down the road.

So what can the wine industry do?

In stark terms, prepare for the worst and the big unknown of a no deal. That means having enough stock on this side of the Channel to keep doing business for as long as possible after March 29. It also means having enough affordable currency hedged and stashed away to pay for it. It means talking to and working with producer partners, both within the EU and around the world, to strike longer term supply deals that will ensure they can carry on doing business well after March 29. It will require understanding and co-operation on both sides of the negotiating table. This is not the time for short term gains.

But the wine trade is always saying this is the worst possible time and then finds a way to make things work.

Yes, to some extent it does, it’s just the Brexit uncertainty is having an impact on so many factors outside its control. Just look at how the average consumer is behaving. Spending is down across the board not helped by the fact our collective real annual wages have not kept up with inflation. So although actual wages are rising faster than they have done for a decade, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows real annual wages, when inflation is not taken into account, are £800 lower than they were 10 years ago. Not the combination you want it you are a retailer, restaurant or drinks importer trying to buy and sell as discretionary a product as wine.

What else?

We are now into Dry January as hundreds of thousands of people give up the booze. Many have already done so all year round, or cut back on their drinking to such an extent that the wine sector is operating in an overall declining rather than growing market. Which is good news for the Wine & Spirit Trade Association when it is going into the Treasury to bat for a duty reduction, but very bad news if your commercial future relies on people drinking and buying more wine.

So what’s to be done?

Well, we’re not going to solve all the wine industry’s problems here and now. All we can do is look after ourselves and ensure we are doing all we can, as individuals or as businesses, to make our wine offer as exciting, relevant and affordable as we can. Yes, the next few months are going to be tough, but there are still more than enough people out there who want to drink and discover great wines. It might end up with fewer businesses where they can buy those wines from, but that’s still good news for the companies that stand out and are successful. Brexit or no Brexit.

Why brands can't rely on supermarkets any more?

That's quite a statement. What makes you think that?

Here's a killer stat for you: 76% of FMCG growth around the world now comes from outside of supermarkets and hypermarkets, according to those clever analysts at Kantar Worldpanel, who number crunch spending behaviour across all retail sectors. It's a pretty worrying statistic for anyone whose business model is focused on the size, stature and strength of the Big Four grocers in the UK who currently hold around 67% of all our grocery market, down from around 75% in 2008. For decades if you were a recognised FMCG brand then you knew you had made it. The big retailers needed you just as much as you needed them. You had mile after mile of supermarket shelves from where you could sell your products, all backed up with a world leading distribution system. Now that domination is hardly going to go away overnight, but it reinforces the need for brands and their suppliers to have a multi-channel strategy that covers different types of grocer, from big to small, discounter to convenience and a nod to the on-trade, restaurant and bar sectors too.

That's a lot of speculation from just one statistic.

It would be if that was a one off figure from a random survey. You only have to look at your own spending behaviour to see how fast global consumer trends might be changing. How often do you go and do a big weekly shop at the supermarket? For special occasions, events like Christmas and Easter, perhaps, but week in week out? Chances are you getting a lot of what you need delivered, or picked up during the week on the way home from work. You might be signed up to a couple of fresh food or vegetable delivery services, treat yourself to a weekly takeaway, and a family meal out. That does not leave a lot of room, or need, to pack your fridge and freezer out with trolleys full of FMCG brands bought from the biggest local supermarket.

So what's driving these changes?

Well, convenience for one, and we're not just talking about regular trips to the garage or local shop. Although that is part of the story. But all the other ways we can now get what we want thanks to 4G, higher internet penetration, constantly upgrading smart phones, price comparison and delivery apps, online banking and mobile wallets. We can now personalise our shopping trips, and get stuff when we want and need it.

So it's all down to growth in e-commerce then?

It's certainly very much part of the story. It's also where Kantar Worldpanel says the biggest slice of that 76% of FMCG growth is coming from. E-commerce sales globally grew 30% in the year to March 2017, were up 15% again last year, and now account for 5.8% of total FMCG sales. Kantar expects that share to rise to at least 10% by 2025, when it will be worth $170bn. Noticeably London is singled out as a 'megacity' for e-commerce, alongside Beijing and Shanghai, and already has a 10% share of the grocery market. For years e-commerce was held back by a lack of functional technology and a consumer reluctance to share financial data online. But we're now well past the tipping point and appear quite happy for our lives to be dominated by disruptive online platforms, like Uber, that allow us to get what we want - now. The challenge for brands, and retailers, is to better understand how we are all using e-commerce, but those with the most effective omni, on and offline, channel strategy are going to be the most successful.

What else do big brands need to be thinking about?

From a big player's point of view they have to address the fact we've all got a lot more fussy about where we spend our money, thanks to all the new options available to us, and what we spend it on. Which increasingly means not buying brands. Stéphane Roger, global shopper and retail director of Kantar Worldpanel sums it up nicely: “Shoppers are moving to less expensive options, like discounters, private labels or promotions”. Areas all switched-on wine brands, suppliers, producers and retailers should be concentrating their efforts on.

What's the answer then?

Be quick, flexible and have a simple brand offer that consumers can easily understand, access, engage with and shop for - both in-store, but most definitely online. Brands simply cannot afford to be big only in one retail channel. The big grocers simply do not have the control, power and influence they used to have. To be a true household brand in the future you need to be where those households are going to spend their money. Success as a brand has become less about how many actual products you sell, but where you sell them and if you have the networks, the connections, the functionality in place to allow you to grow next year.

Prepare yourself...the Chinese are coming!

Really? That sounds familiar…

Yes, you might be thinking of the late good old Colin Welland, the man who scripted the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, who warned Hollywood back in 1982 that the film’s success would spark a torrent of new British film talent. The Chinese warning is a little more understated than that, but it’s already very much alive and kicking in the wines we are able to source, buy and put on our retail and restaurant wine lists. China has fast become one of the world’s biggest wine importing countries, with a thirst for new wines that will have an increasing impact on what is available to buy in other markets.

How do you mean?

Well just look at how Chile and Australia have upscaled their exports to China in recent years after they respectively struck free trade deals there. Wines that would normally have been destined for their more traditional markets in the UK and Europe are being swept up more and more by Chinese importers. Chile’s exports to China were 9.7m h/l in 2016 and expected to be over 12m h/l in 2018. China is now Australia’s biggest export market by value, up 24% in the last year to A$1.06bn, with volumes up 26% in the last 12 months.

But that’s just market dynamics, it’s not like the Chinese are setting up shop and looking to sell directly to us in the UK?

That’s where you are very wrong. Where the Chinese are very much looking to have a direct influence on our market is online. We might like to think we are ahead of the curve when it comes to new technology and what role it plays in our business and personal lives. But we’re very much in Betamax mode compared to what is happening in China.

How do you mean?

We might spend too much of our time on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But when we do it is mainly to pass and share information about what we are all doing. In China, its social media platforms cover all aspects of their business and personal life. Platforms like WeChat are being used both to share funny videos and pictures of what you got up to at the weekend, but they are also fully functioning e-commerce, and retail sites that allow you to see things you like, buy them and get them delivered directly to where you are.

That’s all very nice for them, but what’s that got to do with us?

Well, wouldn’t it be nice to do the same here? Chances are in the next couple of years the same Chinese technology will be powering our smartphones and completely changing the way we behave, interact, and go about our daily working and personal lives.

Go on then, how?

The big Chinese online players are no longer just about sourcing and selling products and services to the Chinese, they are increasingly looking to spread their wings and get us to use their sites here in the UK, in the same way we might log on to Amazon. But that does not mean shipping products all the way from China. Alibaba, China’s biggest online, e-commerce player, with sub-brands, Tmall and Tbaobao, has stated its ultimate goal is to be able to ship anywhere in the world within 72 hours. This is all part of a global strategy to have 2 billion customers by 2036 and sales that would make it the fifth biggest economy by GDP, behind the US, China, Japan and the EU. It already wants its international business to account for 40% of its turnover within 10 years.

What’s it doing to achieve that?

It has already started building up an international network of largely automated distribution hubs that will each be able to supply up to 1,000 cities within three years. It now has five such hubs in Dubai, Hangzhou, Kuala Lumpur, Liege and Moscow, each kitted out with the latest in smart warehouses, fully automated assembly lines and self-driving robots. It is already shipping to 30 cities around the world within a five day delivery window. All of which is possible because it has built the world’s fastest cloud-based streaming processing platform that allows it to manage and analyse online transactions to a scale unimaginable before. Its servers, for example, are said to currently store 1,000 petabytes of data (one petabyte is one million gigabytes). It’s even set up its own cloud computing arm and has two data centres in the UK offering business its specialist data analytics, storage and machine learning services

My word, now I see what you mean?

Exactly. It’s time we all started to watch and learn what the major Chinese online giants are doing both at home and overseas. We have already discussed on Grapevine how Alibaba’s distribution network allows a Chinese customer anywhere in the country to buy a bottle direct from a vineyard say in France, Italy or Spain and have it shipped direct to their door within a few days. It’s simply using the same model to start shipping products from China to us.

So what does this mean for the average wine business in the UK?

If Alibaba is true to its word then there is no reason why you couldn’t be sourcing wine, not just to sell to the well-heeled middle classes in the UK, but the Chinese market too. Its distribution hubs are being designed to work both ways. Bring Chinese products to the world, and open up the world to Chinese consumers. Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms like Tmall are already being used by retailers and brands from all over the word (up 169% in 2017) to create their own ‘online shop’ and sell direct to China. So don’t say you weren’t warned.

Why brands going direct to consumer is the future

Sounds interesting but what do you mean by going direct?

Well, if you know your Laurel and Hardy it's quite straightforward. When they were running their own wholesale fish business they worked out they could make a lot more money if they caught their own fish, sold them direct to customers, and “eliminated the middleman” along the way. It's not far away from what's happening in the real world. Yes the big wholesalers, national distributors, major supermarkets and online giants still dictate which brands and products are listed and sold. But that's increasingly not going to be the case now that smart, interactive, digital technology technically allows any brand, or producer, to talk to and sell their products direct to anyone they like around the world with minimal cost. Particularly when you factor in how much profit and margin is being taken out of the supply chain with all the listing, promotional and so called in-store and distributor marketing fees. Yes, they have been the route to market ever since we had high streets, shops, pubs and restaurants, but does that mean they have to be in the future? Why can't producers just do what they like and sell direct to consumers or their customers?

So, what's stopping them?

Nothing. Only the fact the vast majority of traditional retailers and distributors are not going to take kindly to brands, producers and manufacturers just doing what they like. That's not the way it works. Those aren't the rules of the game. But we live in disruptive times and behind the scenes things are starting to change. Big brands are starting to quietly look at how far they can push those traditional rules, so that they own more of their own supply chain, get direct contact with their consumers, learn more about them, and crucially make better financial returns.

So what are the drinks brands up to?

Well, if you are a bit behind on the news this summer you might have missed what could turn out to be one of the most important drinks industry deals. Not that you would have realised it. Pernod Ricard's acquisition of Uvinum, the Spanish global e-commerce site for wine and drinks, was carried out with the minimum of fanfare, but the long term ramifications could be far reaching. It might only have been a minimum outlay, but one of the world's biggest drinks players buying up a specialist e-commerce drinks retailer is a clear statement of intent. Not that you will find too many Pernod Ricard executives talking about it. They don't want to rustle the feathers of the big retailers and distributors they currently rely on to sell their household brands. But over the last three to four years e-commerce has been the fastest growing part of Pernod Ricard's business. Up 20% in 2016, it has done deals with the likes of Amazon to find discreet ways to go direct to consumers.

Interesting. What else has been going on?

As far back as 2013 Pernod Ricard introduced its own e-commerce site, Sipstor, which it used to sell exclusive, limited editions of its favourite brands, such as Havana Club and Absolut Vodka, as well as run marketing campaigns and, no doubt, build up a nice database of digitally savvy customers. In 2016 it followed that up with a dedicated site for Malibu rum where you couldn't buy the drink, but get your hands on exclusive offers you could spend in-store, alongside unique point of sale materials and branded clothing. Diageo is looking to do the same with its own brand specific websites, so that it too can connect with and build direct relationships with customers. When they are not hosting standalone websites big drinks brands are investing millions in creating shareable videos and content online and building a digital community that way.

Why are we talking about this now?

It's a combination of factors. The biggest being technology and the fact smartphones now give brands, big or small, direct access to all of us at the point of purchase. It means the line between offline and online retailing is becoming irrelevant. It's also what consumers increasingly want. They are seeking out ever personalised offers, experiences and looking for products and brands they can relate to. Often the smaller the better. Here's a killer line from Liza Landsman, who was president of Wal-Mart's until earlier this year: “The day of the pure play [retail] is dead. Consumers want that choice — they don't want companies' operational complexity thrust upon them, pushing them only one way to do business.” Instead they are following and interacting with their favourite brands in their millions on social media. Why not take that onto the next level, getting the ultimate brand experience and buying exclusive products direct from them?

Carry on...

Brands and producers are also increasingly being pushed out of their normal routes to market by the enormous rise in own label. There is also demand from innovative restaurants, bars, and wine merchants looking to create their own unique offers, and get more margin at the same time, by cutting out their own middlemen and going direct to producers and brands.

Anything else?

Smaller, start-up, disruptive brands are already basing their entire business models on going direct to consumers. It's another reason why so many big grocery brands are looking so seriously at DTC. Particularly in functional categories where consumers have jumped at the chance to buy direct for an easy option. Like the Dollar Shave Club (now part of Unilever) or Harry's Razors, Bonobos for clothes or Simba and Caspers for that must-have new mattress. Brands that have used the colossal power of platforms such as Amazon, Facebook and Instagram to grow fast and connect directly with their customers. At minimal cost. They've created a large social media following and been able to use social media ads to switch them over to paid customers. These are often cluttered categories, like razors, that are boring to shop for, but have capitalised on how good other customers say their product is and how easy it is to buy. We might not like it, but the average consumer sees buying an average, daily varietal wine equally as complicated - and unexciting. The opportunity to offer them an easy way to order Prosecco, Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc online, that can be delivered to their door is an open goal just waiting for the right DTC player to take.

Why the singles market is the place to be

Where are you going this time? The singles market? Do you mean people who live on their own, or something, ahem, else?

Yes, we’re strictly talking household size here and the enormous rise in people who, either by choice or not, are increasingly living on their own. The last 20, and in particular 10 years, has seen a major jump in the number of so-called singletons. The Guardian reported this week that the number of single-person households has gone up by over a million in the last 20 years to 7.7m. Globally the number of single households increased by 15% between 2011 and 2016 and is expected to make up 18% of all households by 2020, up from 16% in 2016 (IORMA). The percentage varies enormously between countries, with the number of single-person households predicted to rise by 35% in the US from 2000 to 2025, but by over 60% in England from 2006 to 2031 (OECD). The number of single households in Sweden is a staggering 59% and 41% in Finland (Eurostat, 2016).

So why are we looking to live on our own more?

There are number of factors at play here. Younger professionals are waiting longer to get married and are putting off having kids until their early 30s. Those aged 22 to 44 are now five times more likely to live alone (10%) than in 1973 (2%). There has also been a big rise in the number of middle aged divorces and as people live longer it means there are an increasing number of partners who are being left to live on their own. Then there are the one in ten relationships in the UK where people are together but live apart, keeping their independence (Birkbeck). The so-called LAT (living apart together) lifestyle is expected to become more popular, particularly amongst the under-35s.

That’s all very well, but what’s that got to do with anyone trying to sell wine?

Everything. If you’re living on your own it means what you spend your money on is very different to being say in a couple or family. For a start, it means you are likely to have more disposable income. Money that you are likely to spend on yourself. As an increasing number of so-called singletons are choosing to live on their own out of choice, they are far more interested in experimenting, taking risks and looking for self discovery. After all they don’t have to come to a consensus about what they eat, drink or do in an evening. They always have the casting vote. They are also looking to spend their money on different types of product. The electronics world, for example, has embraced the solo user and created bespoke products for them. Like the Petit Drum washing machine from Samsung that has seen sales rise by 30% in the last year.

So what difference does that make to retailers, restaurants or brands?

Look at what you currently offer. How relevant is to someone living on their own? Like solo dining. It’s not just business execs away on a work trip that are looking to eat alone. People are actively going out to dine alone, but how much space does an average restaurant give them to do so? How often are they crammed into parts of the restaurant no couple wants to eat in? We can expect to see more chains like Amsterdam's Eenmaal which claims to be the world's first restaurant that only has tables for one.

How are businesses changing then to cater for your singletons?

Look at the travel industry. There are now travel companies that specialise in putting together packages and offers for the solo traveller. Particularly for more experience or health driven holidays. research shows 51% of holidays will be taken by people on their own in the next year, including 80% in Germany and 69% in the UK. It also reports a 230% increase in women-only travel companies. There is plenty of help on hand for those that do. Apps like Solo Traveller allow you to tap into what other solo travellers are doing in any particular city you are in, it gives you the chance to meet up to share taxis, advice or just get together for a drink and some food. Hotel groups are setting up loyalty schemes, with specific offers, to attract those travelling on their own.

And food and drink?

If you examine Kantar’s biggest 10 FMCG brands in the UK - Warburtons, Heinz, McVitie’s, Hovis, Kingsmill, Birds Eye, Walkers, Muller, Cadbury’s and Coca-Cola - and look at their NPD innovation over the last 10 years a lot of it has been around creating smaller, snack-size, single-pot packaging formats to cope, in part, with a demand for less calories per product, but also in keeping with the smaller household trend. Nielsen says its research shows that 20% of shoppers are actively seeking out smaller sizes.

Anything else?

The major supermarkets have long looked to cater for the growing singleton market. It also makes good business sense as one-person households are said to consume 38% more products and 42% more packaging, per capita, than a family of four. Tesco claims the meals-for-one market is worth more than £20bn and is looking to increase its single-serve range by nearly 40% this year, up to close to 450 products. It will also include more single portion fresh meat and fish and hand-sized packs of vegetables. The key is to do so whilst still offering value for money and convenient packaging at the same time.

And in wine?

It’s where the sudden demand for 50cl and 37.5cl wine bottles have come from. Yes, we can talk about being responsible and only wanting to have a glass or two a night. But if you are on your own then half a bottle is the ideal size.Then there are the various single serve wine formats with more space in-store for cans and 187ml bottles (up 21% in 2016 in Sainsbury’s) all of which carry the added bonus of offering better margins. But there is much more to do here, and to get sustained growth we will need to see more experimentation, more 25cl formats, for example, and greater willingness from producers, distributors and retailers alike to make single living a major priority in the years ahead.

Why we all need to watch what Tesco does with Jack's?

Really? Another wannabe discount retail brand? What is there to watch?

Well, yes on the face of it not a lot other than another example of our once great, world leading, multiple retailers ripping up the past to simply follow the trading strategy of a much weaker retail competitor. Can we really imagine a Tesco in its 80's or 90's pomp, under the leadership of Lord MacLaurin or Sir Terry Leahy, setting up a standalone discount retail chain to compete with the German chains Aldi and Lidl? Retailers that still only have a combined share of just over 13% of the market, which is still less than half of what Tesco (27.4%, Kantar) tots up every year.

Exactly, so why should we get so excited about it?

Dig a little deeper into those figures and you can see why Tesco - and the other Big Four multiple supermarkets - are tying themselves in knots in a bid to find an answer to the year-in-year-out growth of the German discounters. Over the last decade Aldi and Lidl have been directly responsible for taking £7 billion in sales away from Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons combined. At its peak £32 in every £100 spent in a supermarket went to Tesco, now it's down to £27.40. The launch of Jack's comes at a time when finding even half a percent in growth has proved hard for the major supermarkets. They are bogged down with their own head-to-head competition, rising import and food costs, huge increases in their property rents, rates rises and a lop-sided wage structure that does not have the growth levels in the business to support it. Shareholders and investors are nervous and restless. The analyst peanut gallery is firing on all cylinders and the Big Four are struggling to come up with the answers.

And Jack's is the route back to salvation?

Hardly. But there is a sense of if you can't beat them join them. Jack's is not just a nod to the discounters, it is Aldi and Lidl re-invented with a few more union jacks and PR clarion calls to British producers thrown in along the way. Even then its British first strategy is already very much part of the German discounters' DNA - Aldi says it spends £100m with British suppliers a week. It's also hardly going to get retailers from all over the world rushing to suburban Britain to see what amazing innovations Tesco is introducing at Jack's. But what it has done has got the financial and business chattering classes taking about Tesco in a mostly positive light again. It is helping to drive an effective PR message out to the shopping public that Tesco can do more than just match the discounters on price it can potentially beat them at their own game. Even if the reality is somewhat less dramatic than that. We are only talking about two stores here and the hardly hold on to your seats promise that there will be 10 to 15 more over the six months. There are independent c-store retailers with a more ambitious growth strategy than that.

So what does it mean then?

What Jack's has already done is help reset the retail conversation. It has once again, just in case producers had any thoughts of grandeur, put price firmly back at the top of the agenda. We live, as we know, in uncertain times with the prospect of Brexit, deal or no deal, only six months away. With Jack's, Tesco is hoping to re-confirm its position as the pace and agenda setter of the grocery retail sector. The worry for all those that supply it, and the other major grocers, is that it is doing so with such a low price driven strategy. We also have to consider that Tesco's chief executive, Dave Lewis, has a long held promise to the City that, even in these rough trading conditions, that the group will earn between 3.5p and 4p of operating profit for every £1 that a customer spends with it by 2020. To reach those kind of figures will require even more streamlining, cost cutting and breakthrough measures such as Jack's and its proposed partnership with Carrefour to co-source close to 20,000 products for its respective stores.

So where does wine fit into all that?

It may not be flagged up in the trading statements, but have no doubt that wine is very much one of the central categories that can help all this happen. Wine attracts the right kind of customer. Just look at how Lidl and Aldi have made wine such a hero category to draw in well heeled customers that help push up average basket spends and draw those billions of pounds in sales away from the Big Four. Aldi, for example, announced this week that it has sold 6.2m bottles of wine online since it launched its fledgling e-commerce site in 2016. But whilst the discounters appear to have aspirations to aim higher with wine, the message from Tesco HQ is that it wants to be the “cheapest in town”. Which for Jack's means selling its cheapest wine (above 10% abv) at £3.15, the same as Lidl, or £3.69 at Aldi. Or about 30p-40p of wine after VAT. Yes, Jack's might be tiny in the overall scheme of things, but it shows how Tesco is thinking, and what rocks their boat, which, in turn, will have a knock-on effect to all major retailers and their suppliers. If you want to do business with them, work out what the discounters are doing, how you can make a difference, help save them money, cut costs, and work up from there.

  • This article was published in Grapevine on October 4 that I produce for The London Wine Fair.

Why subscriptions are the future of retailing

Really? That doesn't sound very radical?

Hang on. Give me a chance. Often the best retail solutions are the most obvious, the easiest for consumers to understand and for operators to deliver. Yes, retail subscription models have been around for as long as we have been collecting the latest instalment of the Encyclopædia Britannica. But in recent years they have become a far more sophisticated retail model designed to build a loyal customer database that is willing to spend money with you on a regular basis. Thus providing a constant stream of almost guaranteed cash flow that means you don't have to rely on getting shoppers into your store, or users onto your website.

But hasn't that always been the case with a subscription offer?

Yes, but traditionally a lot of subscriptions we have signed up for have been for more mundane “have to have” services and goods. Like our utility bills, council tax, TV licence, or for insurance, health or tax payments. But over the last 10 years we have become used to voluntarily signing up to subscription models in order to get access to the latest, must have services, goods, content, music or film.

So what's changed?

It all comes down to the explosion in downstreaming services that did not exist five to 10 years ago. For years we've been used to paying for the TV we want to watch thanks to Sky and its premium services for sports, movies or drama. Now there are a whole raft of subscription sites for every kind of entertainment. First there was music thanks to iTunes, that has morphed into services like Spotify. Now Netflix and Amazon Prime have brought the equivalent of the local DVD shop into the comfort of our homes. All of which have been made possible by the breakthroughs in technology that have been able to create and deliver these downloadable services, be it via an iPod, iPad, smartphone or digital television.

Interesting. What else?

These technical advances have, in turn, transformed the way we now expect, and are happy, to spend our money. Look back 10 years ago at what direct debits you had. Now we are quite prepared to spend £100 a month to Sky for all its TV and broadband services. Phone tariffs are no longer about just making or receiving calls and texts, we're quite willing to spend £30 to £50 a month to have the right handset and amount of data we need to download what we want, where we want. Noticeably, the monthly subscriptions for the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify and Apple Music are all around the £10 level. After all what's another £10 a month? In the US the subscription e-commerce market has grown over 100% a year for the last five years.

So what's this got to do with wine?

Everything. Consumers now expect to be able to sign up to specialised, personalised subscription services that meet their personal needs and food and drink has become one of the fastest growing sectors for subscription offers. So much so that the big supermarket chains are now just as fearful about the rise of new meal-kit delivery subscription sites like HelloFresh (the Financial Times' fastest growing company in Europe in 2017) and Blue Apron as they are the rise of Aldi and Lidl. They are fast taking away market share from well heeled 25-45 year olds who are looking to pay premium prices for good quality, fresh ingredients that can be delivered to their homes. Services that take away the hassle of weekly shopping, and also allow you to cook quick, fresh, healthy and quality meals at home. The UK's delivery subscription market is now worth over £2bn a year with users citing convenience (45%) and value for money (60%) as the two key reasons for signing up (Whistl).

Sounds like they're also making consumers pretty lazy?

Lazy in that they now expect everything they want to be available to them, to their door, or wherever they happen to be. But it's also making them extremely demanding and hard to please. The recent Whistl report found one in five Brits now refuse to shop with retailers that don't offer a subscription model. The arrival of Uber and Deliveroo in our lives, means we now expect there to be an app for every sort of service that is available direct from our smartphone. Need petrol for the car? There's a van that will come to your car and fill it up for you. So why bother going to a shop to buy wine, however pretty and engaging it is and well informed its staff are, when you can just get a case or bottle delivered whenever and wherever you want?

OK fair enough, you can see why traditional retailers should be worried.

Subscription retailing is now a retail channel in its own right. We might not be able to physically see it, but it is operating like a virtual, parallel retail universe gobbling ever bigger shares of our disposable income. The rich and famous have for years been able to use concierge subscription services to keep them fed, watered and pampered, but now we all have access to our very own concierge-type services through the wonders of our smartphone. We just need to know which apps to use.

And finally?

Subscription models also make commercial sense. Once you can convince someone to sign up they are often too lazy to cancel. Just look at how many gym memberships you have versus the amount of time you go to a gym. Many a subscription retailer will still keep collecting people's money whether they use their services or not. Now wine has not quite managed to pull that stunt off yet, but it's surely open season for those operators capable of drawing customers in, getting them engaged and watching those monthly direct debits come in.

Sell more wine by making it appear not like wine

Come again? How and why would you want to do that?

Well, think about it. There are an awful lot of people out there who don’t like wine the same way we do. They don’t like the taste, they don’t understand which wines they might like even if they did and it’s a whole lot easier just to ask for a beer, cider or gin and tonic instead. So if you are ever going to convince that kind of consumer to give wine a go, then you’re going to have to do more than just past them a corkscrew and give them the latest copy of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book.

You mean you have to cajole them?

Not exactly, but you have to give them very different reasons for wanting to give wine a try. It’s why we are seeing such a growth and interest in wine-based drinks that might have the wine purists turning up their discerning noses in disgust, but it’s what flying off supermarket shelves. Echo Falls was leading the way in creating the wine fusion market. There might be grapes in your glass, but what you can taste is the “zesty” white peach, strawberry, raspberry or grapefruit that has been added to make it into the kind of drink lots of non-wine lovers might want. Which they clearly do as the fruit fusion category has exploded to reach over £70m in sales in just two years.


“We are seeing pure and simple wine being sold in funkier packaging, like stubbies and cans that are designed to look more like a craft beer. ”


But is this really the future for wine?

If the overall wine industry wants to have a future then, yes. After all every consumer market has to persuade the next generation to buy into their category and their brands. We are not all born with a disposition to drinking Coca-Cola, munching Walkers Crisps, or snacking on a Mars bar. If we want to convince the next generation of drinkers looking for an alcoholic sugar rush on a night out to drink wine, they we’re going to have to play by the same rules that have got people, particularly younger drinkers, queuing up at the bar for the latest in fruit-flavoured vodkas, gins and ciders. Only then will we then have a chance of slowly persuading them to tone down the added fruits and sweetness and just go with what comes straight from a vineyard.

It all sounds rather depressing?

Oh, get over yourself. Go back to when you first started drinking wine. The days before you nosed a wine, and rolled it around in the glass assessing its colour and legs before getting it anywhere near your mouth. You were hardly reaching for a glass of Nebbiolo or Pimitivo straight out of college. No, the chances are you were introduced to wine by drinking a bottle of cheap, cheerful and, yes, sweet Lambrusco. We’re not re-inventing the wheel here. We’re just become a bit more knowing, and calculated, in how we entice new shoppers, particularly younger ones, down the wine aisle.

OK anything else?

Look at the rise in Prosecco. For a lot of mainstream Prosecco drinkers they don’t think they’re drinking wine, they’re just having a ‘Prosecco’. It has now become a brand, a drinks category all in itself. Look at Aperol Spritz. How many customers who order an Aperol Spritz actually know or care they’re ordering a sparkling wine, Prosecco, soda and Aperol - whatever that it is? It just looks cool, refreshing and what everyone else is drinking. But for bars, restaurants and retailers it’s become a very good way of shifting even more bottles of Prosecco. As are wine-based cocktails, where wine is the foundation for a drink that brings in a whole variety of flavours and spirits.

So is that why we are seeing wine being sold in all different types of packaging now?

Now you’re getting it. Yes, not only do all these types of wine-based drinks taste different from a standard wine they look different too. We are also seeing pure and simple wine being sold in funkier packaging, like stubbies and cans that are designed to look more like a craft beer.

What else is happening with brands?

The expansion of the wine category into these new areas is both a threat and an opportunity for established wine brands. There are those brands that don’t want to lose any of their wine credibility by moving into newer ‘non wine’ areas. Then there are others that can see how they can use the strength of their brand to take consumers into other categories and drinking opportunities. Let’s go back to Echo Falls. It now has its own summer berries flavoured vodka and don’t be surprised to see it move into flavoured gins or spiced rums in the future. Consumers are becoming used to seeing brands being stretched right across all grocery categories in search of new profits and growth. Look at Innocent Drinks that has seamlessly moved from smoothies and into the health and wellness category with coconut water blends and sparkling waters. Or Lynx deodorant that now covers all areas of male grooming from shaving to hair products. There’s even news of Dunkin Donuts launching its own craft beer range.

So it’s wine but not as we know it?

Very much so. Look at the 19 Crimes wine brand from Treasury Wine Estates. It has become phenomenally successful in a short period of time not because of the quality or story about the wine. No, its appeal is being driven because of the augmented reality technology that is being used to make the label. Criminals being sent to Australia for committing one of 19 Crimes, burst into life and start talking to you via an app. It’s opening up wine to younger consumers who are permanently attached to their smartphone and see the world through new technology. So yes, as you say. It’s wine, but not as we know it....

Why showing you care for the community makes good business sense

Isn’t that a bit like saying “they do a lot of work for charity, but they don’t like to talk about it”?

It is, but if you want to be seen as a good business it’s not necessarily showing off, it just makes a lot of sense. We’re also not just talking about raising money for good causes here, but the economic impact your company is having on the local community around you, and if you’re big enough, regionally and nationally too. If you’re changing things for the better then don’t keep it to yourself.

But why are we talking about this now?

Well, it’s a particularly relevant message for the drinks industry and wine sector to take seriously. Not a week goes by without some sort of negative medical report coming out claiming how dangerous it is to drink alcohol on a regular basis. Yes, you might have the odd study that extols the positives of the occasional drink, but the overriding message is booze is bad and, by association, so are the companies that make and sell it. If that means adding more taxes, duty and hurdles that make life difficult for all those companies, then who cares? If it means paying more for a pint or a bottle of wine, that’s the penance you have to pay for indulging in such an unhealthy activity.


“Tesco now claims that out of every £1 spent by customers, 73p goes back to farmers and suppliers across the UK, 11p is paid to Tesco colleagues in wages and 3p is paid to the government in tax to pay for public services like the NHS.”


This has gone down hill all of a sudden.

Bear with me. It’s why we have seen our trade bodies, particularly the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, make the business and economic case to the government as to why another duty raise does not make financial sense, rather than try to make any sort of health arguments. It’s a strategy that has worked. Particularly since it has employed third party consultants, Ernst & Young, to make the business case for it.

What are those headline WSTA figures again?

Yes, they’re worth bookmarking and using at any given opportunity. The UK’s wine and spirits industry supports 554,000 jobs, contributes £50bn per annum in economic activity, including £17.5bn to the public purse, split £9.5bn from the wine industry and £8.2bn for the spirits sector. If you look at the wine industry on its own then it employs 172,000 people directly and 105,000 in the connecting supply chain. All of whom help contribute £19.9bn in economic activity, including sales worth £6.7bn in shops and supermarkets and £4.2bn through pubs, bars and restaurants.

Anything else?

The WSTA’s campaign to convince the Treasury to freeze alcohol duty finally paid off when the Chancellor did exactly that in last November’s Budget. It was then able to prove its long held claim that a freeze on duty would actually raise the amount going into the Treasury when in April the HMRC announced that in the four months between December 2017 to April 2018 revenues from wine and spirit duties were up £67m, or 2%, at £3.291bn and the yearly impact would be a £140m rise. See how powerful it is when the figures do the talking for you?

What else have you noticed?

Let’s look at how individual businesses are using economic impact reports to present themselves in a better light. Probably the best current example is Tesco. It was not so long ago that at its height of popularity it came out with the fateful statement that £1 in £8 was being spent in one of its stores. It was meant to show how successful and popular the chain was with the Great British public. But it soon backfired and was used to demonstrate, by competitors and critics alike, how dominant and powerful it had become. Traits the average British shopper saw as the business equivalent of scratching fingernails down a blackboard. The new Tesco, under chief executive Dave Lewis, is a very different beast and it is now using its size, scale and influence not to show off, but make the economic argument of how effective and important it is both nationally, but particularly to local struggling communities.

Sounds like you’ve been drinking too much Tesco cola.

No, I’ve just been studying its recent Value in Your Town report. It again uses the £1 analogy, but crucially it does so in a very different way. It now claims that out of every £1 spent by Tesco customers, 73p goes back to farmers and suppliers from across the UK, 11p is paid to Tesco colleagues in wages and 3p is paid to the government in tax to pay for public services like the NHS. Every £1 of direct economic activity at Tesco was also claimed to generate an additional £5.46 in value to the UK economy as a whole. It has noticeably divided the country by parliamentary constituency therefore allowing every MP and resident in those postcodes to see what impact Tesco has had there. Now admittedly these are Tesco’s own figures and they might have small businesses, suppliers and local c-stores throwing their cornflakes at the wall, but if you look at the bigger picture it's a very astute move from a retailer that is still trying to regain the confidence of the general shopper and its investors. It is also painting the rest of the FMCG, grocery sector in a good light so it probably won’t be long before we see similar reports from other retailers.

What does it mean for us lesser mortals?

These are all good examples to take lessons from. We might not be able to produce an all singing, dancing economic analysis study - just ask David Davis how hard they are to come by. But we all know our customers, and what benefits and services we are providing them. So rather than fill your website and social media feed with all the medals you have won, and pats on the back you have got, concentrate on what impact your business is having, be it in the local community or with your customers and their consumers. Tell the world about those and that’s where you’ll make the biggest impact.

Why we all have to think like publishers and media players now

Speak for yourself. You might spend your life writing and pontificating, but I actually produce and sell something that people want to consume?

And you do it very well. But how do you get people to know about it and then be able to go out, find it and buy it? In this increasingly switched-on world you can't just send out a press release, or stick a new product on your website and expect people to come and find it. Just look back at all the articles and pieces of information you have read this week. How did you come across them? Chances are they were all pushed out to you in one way or another. Be it a link in a tweet, a post on Instagram, Facebook, or via an email newsletter you have signed up to. Publishers now know they can't rely on you just buying their newspaper or magazine, they have to use a whole number of ways to get their must read content in front of your eyes in some way or other.

Yes, that's all well and good, but what's that got to do with me? I just buy and sell wine.

But think about it. Your bottle of wine is exactly the same as the article, social media post or piece of information that a publisher wants to get out there. Your challenge is just the same. To get your wine under the nose of the people you think are most likely to want to buy it. Thanks to advances in smart technology there are now countless ways to do that. There is the traditional route through straightforward content or advertising in the most appropriate trade and consumer press. But the most successful businesses are the ones that are taking complete control of the messages and content they are putting out there.

Really, how?

Let's take a look at holiday company Thomas Cook. In the early 2000s it, and other traditional travel businesses, were haemorrhaging sales to new online businesses like and Expedia. Consumers fell in love with the idea of searching for and booking holidays themselves. To fight back Thomas Cook has turned itself into a holiday and media business. It has used high quality content that brings to life the holidays and experiences it can offer which, through careful data analysis of its 22 million plus customer base, it can personalise and target to different people. Content that it pushes out in short films on social media, and via its own publishing platforms both in print and digital and its award-winning website, Excursionist. Content that the search and SEO driven sites of their online travel competitors are not set up or motivated to provide.

Yes, but they are selling amazing holidays. I've only got wine to offer them?

Listen to yourself. What about all those compelling stories you are always telling me you have about every wine in your range. Every wine business, be they a producer, distributor, retailer or restaurant should be using all these story-telling tricks and devices to get their personal messages out to their target customers.

OK, give me some examples.

It all comes down to how well you can use content and technology to get into the hearts, minds and wallets of your customers. Look at what specialist retailers are doing with arguably the most powerful tool they have to hand, the personalised mailer. Different chains, like Majestic, are now sending out daily targeted mailers to specific customer segments with news about, for example, different wines their buying history suggests they will be interested in. How you respond will educate them, and their systems, about the kinds of wines and offers you want to hear about. In just the same way that Deliveroo will send you promotions of types of food it knows you have ordered before.

What else are people doing?

Well, Coca-Cola is running an ingenious scheme where it is asking anyone to come up with creative ideas that “celebrate Coca-Cola” for a new advertising campaign. It has already received over 1,500 free submissions. A pretty canny way to get to see what your customer base really thinks of you. You only need to use one and the rest can help build up your online community. A simple idea that any wine business could follow.

What can wine companies be doing better?

Anyone that is trying to run any form of subscription or wine club model for a start. The ones that stand out aren't just offering a directory and website full of wines and tasting notes. That's just the foundation on top of which all your content that really matters can sit. Be it a regular punchy newsletter that showcases what you do, new voices and videos to follow on social media, an online forum for customers to join in with, Twitter chats with winemakers, or invites to special events. Different touch points that help members feel part of your club. Make sure you get the tone right. Don't talk hipster if your average customer spends most of the year on a cruise ship.

And finally?

Producing good, relevant content is hard. Look back at the content you've been producing and ask yourself if you find it interesting? After all, if you make a big thing of the fact you would drink any wine you sell, then make sure any content or information you're sending out is good enough for you to read and enjoy. Then you'll be more than halfway home. 

* This article was first published in Grapevine that I produce for the London Wine Fair. 

Why we need more than just 15 minutes of fame

That's being a bit greedy isn't it? Why would you want to be famous in the first place?

I don't mean people staring at you in the street famous. I mean working out what it is you want to be famous for in the eyes of your customers, be it the trade or your target consumer. That's a very different kind of fame and it will increasingly determine how successful you are at what you do.

Really, why?

It's a bit like taking your company's values statement that sits pride of place on the wall in reception and turning it into something that really matters. Not to you, but your customer. What is it about you that makes them want to work with you, buy your products and come back for more? It's a harder question to answer than you think, particularly in such a homogenised industry as wine, where essentially everyone is just buying and selling different variations of the same thing - 75cls of wine in a bottle.

But surely every business is different based on the people in it?

They are, but it does not mean the end product or service they are offering is anything distinctly different from a whole number of other like-minded companies. Which brings us back to working out what it is you are really famous for. You can't just say you are dedicated to finding, supplying and selling the best quality wine in the world. There are directories full of companies all claiming to do the same thing.

So what's the answer?

That's clearly going to be different for every business. Look around your competitive set and you will quickly be able to identify what they do best, or better than you. What is it about them that gives them an edge? What would they say makes you unique and different? If you can't answer that, then you've got a problem. Look around different sectors and the most successful companies are the ones that have got a clear business strategy, image and identity. Take Naked Wines. It's all about its Angels supporting winemakers around the world. The Wine Society. A not-for-profit wine club made possible by the collective support of its paid up members. 67 Pall Mall. A private club for professionals who are passionate about wine. John Lewis, a department store you can trust to never sell you a product that is cheaper elsewhere.

But surely there is not an infinite number of ways to buy and sell wine?

If you can't find one then you're in the wrong business. Particularly now that competition is fiercer than it ever has been. Smartphones have put the buying power in the hands of the consumer and your decades of good, loyal service to the wine buying public now stands for nothing if your products come up more expensive on Vivino or Wine Searcher.

So who are the winners and losers in all this?

Potentially it's particularly bad news for the big generic businesses that claim to be all things to all folk. Like our major retailers and national drinks distributors. It means they are effectively all doing the same job - supplying wine from all over the world. Where the only differences between them comes down, in the case of a retailer, to the price or the quality of their private label. Or for national distributors how easy it is to place an order, how flexible they are on delivery slots, and what sort of support, training and trips they offer. They can stand out by being the biggest, with the buying power to supply wines at a lower price. Or they can diversify and specialise in new emerging regions, but then there are independent companies who are already doing that.

So what are they doing?

It's interesting to see how Bibendum is making quality, interesting content as one of its key points of difference. Already famous for its market-leading consumer and trade insights, it is now producing a premium quality e-book, Fine Lees, with customer and producer profiles and magazine quality content. It is also producing a regular podcast, Bibendum Radio, featuring members of its own team, producers and customers to push quality information out alongside the wines.

What else is going on?

We can learn a lot from what is going on in the hospitality and travel sectors. Here businesses that are essentially service providers, be it the food, drink, hotel room or airline seat they offer, are 100% focused on making themselves into brands that are relevant to what their customers want. If you have the money why do you choose one airline over another? Or book yourself into a certain hotel chain? It's the same with restaurants, bars and pubs. Noble Rot became famous amongst its customers for its off-beat, left field magazine, before channelling the concept of the magazine into a restaurant of the same name. Martin Williams, founder of M Restaurants, is quite clear he is all about building a brand, not a chain. A brand famous for providing excellence in service and hospitality that can take those credentials and the community it has created around them into other sectors, be it travel, fashion or whatever. It's what M is famous for that counts, not how many outlets it has.

And finally?

It's why we are seeing so many specialist subscription services starting up. It's where brands are going to be famous. The space available for brands, both big and small, on supermarket shelves is decreasing by the month as they look to build customer loyalty through their own private labels. So instead brands are looking to go direct to their target customers by building up their own subscription models. Just look at the success of Harry's, the US shave club, that is now raking in sales in the UK for its through your door regular supply of razors and cream. It became so successful that Unilever bought it for $1bn. If Harry's can become famous for such an unexciting product as razors, then there has to be enormous potential still for all those businesses, and individuals, who can become genuinely, uniquely famous for the wines they make but increasingly about how they market it, sell it, deliver it and get people coming back for more.

Why consumers want more than low prices to keep them loyal

You sure? Don't believe everything your retail consultant mates tell you.

Well, clearly we all like a good deal and it's always going to be an important part of any buying decision, but if you keep going back to your customer base with just another discount, followed by another, then people will stop buying and disengage with the offers you are sending out. Take Gap. If you sign up to its customer newsletter, you will receive an email every day offering some sort of discount. Customers wait for the 40% or 50% offer to come along before ever spending anything, and even then the numbers drop away quite quickly.

But surely it all comes down to price in the end?

You would be surprised. In a retail industry dominated by the everyday low pricing strategies of the German discounters, price has become less powerful on its own as a way of keeping your customers loyal. Shoppers now expect your prices to be as low as they can. To keep them loyal you have to offer them something else. It's why the majority of retail loyalty cards are no longer just about generating points to get direct discounts. They've subtly changed in recent years to be much more about how a specific retailer can help customers in other areas of their everyday spending.

How do you mean?

Just look at the loyalty schemes you are a part of. Tesco Clubcard, for example, offers you vouchers to spend in restaurants, a trip to the cinema, family days out and other experiences to enjoy. It's not just a way to get money off your next grocery bill. Sainsbury's noticeably gave up its own loyalty programme in favour of Nectar that allows you to spend your points across a number of services or non-competing retailers.

You got any figures to back all this up?

Absolutely. Recent research by Forrester shows that 59% of people want something extra other than price discounts from a loyalty scheme. They want rewards and services not available to others. Get that offer right and 69% of loyalty members will spend more with you and recommend your products and services to their peers. But it's not just about what they get, but how they get it. Fifty six per cent of loyalty customers see good service, like a dedicated customer line, or delivery benefits, as key to that relationship.

Interesting. What else?

Arguably the most disruptive influence on how we all now subconsciously judge a retailer's loyalty offer has come with Amazon Prime. Being an Amazon Prime member does not give you any more money off its products. No, it is all about making your life easier. Ordering products with just one click. Faster, more flexible ways to pay for your goods and then how, where and when you have them delivered. The chance to watch more films, access exclusive programmes (even Jeremy Clarkson), download your favourite music and then share it with friends and family. Being an Amazon Prime member is more of a lifestyle choice than simply a glorified alternative to collecting Green Shield stamps. As those retail consultants say, the trick is to be a loyalty company, not a company with a loyalty programme.

Yes, but the wine industry relies enormously on discounting to get people to buy more wine.

It does and has got into a right pickle as a result. It has created generation after generation of wine drinkers who think price first when deciding what wine to buy. It's why there are so few brands to connect with consumers on anything but a transactional level. But it does not need to be this way. Look at how smaller wine merchants or connected restaurants are becoming so successful. They rely far less on the prices they are charging, or their money off promotions to build a consumer base, but instead get a far more meaningful connection with tastings, events, dinners or winemaker talks.

But how do we make wine promotions more meaningful?

Again it is all about knowing who you are selling your wine too and pushing the right offer to the most suitable customer. Don't just send out a mailer with the same promotions to all your registered customers. Spend the time to break down your lists and then target specific customer groups with the wines they are most likely to buy. Most of all make your offers mobile, and digitally savvy enough that they can be used on smartphones. It might sound like common sense, but too often merchants, retailers or restaurants push the same offers to all customers and wonder why they are not picked up.

So what's the answer?

Well, ideally we would not be thinking about promotions at all. But all the other steps you can take to gain the trust, build the loyalty of your customers. How can you reward them in a way that makes them feel better? It could be providing them with more information about what you sell in ways they can relate to. It might be offering them better delivery options, incentives for recommending their wines to their friends. How you are going to use their data to get them more wines they like, be it online, in-store or a combination of the two. But in the end it all comes down to balance. We all like a good offer, but now we want it to come with bells, whistles and other personal benefits.

* This article was first published as part of the Grapevine views, insights and analysis newsletter produced for the London Wine Fair.  

How we will all get used to the power of our own voice in 2018

That’s a bit rich coming from you. How do you mean?
Happy New Year to you too. To answer that you only have to look at what was one of the biggest selling consumer devices this Christmas. Self-dubbed “intelligent personal assistants” like Amazon’s Alexa, or Google’s Voice, are literally allowing people to use the power of their own voice. These devices are set to be become as prevalent and normal in our daily lives as downloading music on Spotify or running our lives through an iPhone. The likes of Amazon Alexa and Echo not only respond to our demands to play a radio station, look up train times, or switch our cooker on at a certain time of the day, they will increasingly be able to listen, learn and adapt to our personal way of talking and thinking so that its algorithms are more in tune with what we want. As machine learning becomes more sophisticated, cloud-based devices, like Alexa, will become more intelligent, powerful and useful.

Yes, but do we really want to be barking out orders to faceless machines?
You might have said the same thing about asking Google to do everything for you. IT research body, Gartner, estimates by the end of 2018, 30% of all web browsing globally will not be done on a screen, but by voice. Particularly as more voice activated devices become the norm in cars, self-service machines and other areas of business. Radiocentre, the UK industry body for commercial radio, predicts 40% of households will have an Amazon Echo device by next year, up from 9% in 2017. The pick-up in the US will be even faster with Gartner predicting 75% of US households will have a voice device by 2020, up from 7% now. Samsung has revealed this week that all its products will be voice controlled by 2020.
It all sounds a bit like Big Brother to me?
Well, you’d better get used to it, particularly if you don’t want to be left behind when such devices become mainstream. It is why major grocery brands are switching their advertising revenues more towards voice-based search to ensure their products are picked up by Alexa-style devices and the algorithms they use to recommend brands to their users.
What are the implications for the wine industry?
They present a major new challenge to the over complicated and duplicated category of wine. Already FMCG brands in major grocery categories are having to look at how well known their brands really are. How easy is it for consumers to remember and say their names? How many top selling products are actually just bought on impulse when recognised down a supermarket aisle? To be relevant to these digital assistants, brands need to be instantly known to users and, most of all, trusted.

amazon alexa.jpg


What else?
You can see why searching for products by voice throws up major concerns for a category like wine that is driven by price, discounts and deals than real brand loyalty and awareness. Chances are it will be grape varieties, countries or regions that Alexa devices will have to interpret and recommend wines for. With so much duplication down the wine aisle it could be disastrous for many of our biggest selling brands unless they can find new ways to be remembered by their customers.

What does this mean for retailers?
Voice activation is potentially good news for major retailers as customers are likely to defer to own label lines when they can’t remember the name of the Pinot Grigio or Prosecco brand they drank last. But arguably less good news for all those retailer, here today, gone tomorrow exclusive brands that rely just on their price and positioning to be sold in-store.

OK, carry on...
But the major challenge to retailers comes from the likes of Amazon and Google that have invested so much in leading the way on voice assistant technology. Not only are they making and selling the devices, it makes them potentially more relevant and more powerful than traditional retailers. We can expect Amazon, in particular, to roll out huge swathes of its own branded products that consumers will trust to buy through voice. It’s already happening. In the US 15% of Alexa owners use them to buy products on Amazon. Its own basic battery brand now outsells major names such as Duracell and Energiser.

So what can wine businesses do?
They need to look at ways they can be relevant in a world controlled by voice rather than screen search. Become known and trusted as the brand, or the business, that knows everything and anything you want to know about what to do with wine. Can you be the brand synonymous with advice on what food to pair with wine? Become the go to brand for a particular country, region or grape variety. Brands will be able to work with the likes of Alexa to become seen as experts in their particular field. Drinks companies like Scottish craft beer business, Bellfield Brewery, are already working with Alexa to provide a range of messages that tell its back story, or let users know the nearest place where they can buy its beer.

So there’s a lot to be getting on with?
Indeed and not all of it needs to have anything to do with voice control now. Wine businesses need to start that journey by becoming more trusted, more relevant to their customers than just being a simple wine brand, retailer or merchant. The more layers you can add now to what your brand stands for, what services and expertise you can provide, the better placed you are to give power to your own voice when you need to.

* This was first published as part of the Grapevine views and insights newsletter I produce for the London Wine Fair. 

Have we got wines to entertain you...

Sorry. Have I missed something? Who are you trying to entertain and why?

Well, it might take more than a one liner to get you off your seat, but look around and everyone on the high street, on the interweb, or bouncing around on social media are all trying to catch our attention by not just selling or telling us stuff, but looking to entertain and offer us an experience as well.

You mean turning the high street into the equivalent of It Ain't Half Hot Mum?

Now you're getting it. Yes, it's like all our retail chiefs have picked up on that famous “meet the gang cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you, with music and laughter” line and are doing their very best to turn an afternoon down the shops in to an experience in its own right. Welcome to the world of “shoppertainment” which increasingly is as much about show business as it is selling you a pound of carrots, a bottle of Pinot Grigio, or a lifetime of insurance.


Gon then, give me some examples.

How about this. All the serving staff at John Lewis' new flagship store in Oxford's Westgate shopping complex have been taking acting and performance lessons at the local Oxford Playhouse. The idea is to give them personal confidence skills in how they talk and what their body language is like when serving customers. It's about the chain's ambition to “reinvent the department store for the 21st century” including dedicating a fifth of the store to 21 “services and experiences” areas offering haircare and styling advice, to helping you buy your Christmas decorations.

Anything else?

This week's Halloween saw as many ghouls, ghosts and contortionists on restaurant and retail floors as sommeliers and store staff. All trying to shock and awe to attract customers in. Martin Williams refers to his M Restaurants as being like a stage on which he can use his training from drama school to perform and project himself as head of house. Debenhams' stock room is even known as the “backstage” and there are signs for staff heading on to the sales floor that say, “Smile, You're On”. It's a different spin on the kind of welcome Bet Lynch would give you in the Rovers Return.

So why are retailers and restaurants behaving this way?

Just look at how you are reading this. Chances are you're glancing at this on your smartphone whilst doing a host of other things, be it downloading music, following a route on Google Maps, or taking part in a Twitter exchange. Getting someone's full attention is hard. Even if they are actually in your place of business looking to buy what you sell. Simply putting goods on a shelf, or writing out a carefully crafted menu, won't wash with the modern consumer who has probably downloaded your range on an app and done a SWOT analysis on your prices.

So good experiences are good for profits too?

Absolutely. Get the whole shopper experience right and not only are consumers happy to pay a lot more for the basic item in question, they are likely to come back for more and bring some friends and family with them.

Is that why more wine tastings are taking place in grungy nightclubs and underground bunkers?

You have been paying attention. Yes, the traditional wine tasting is slowly being transformed away from silent, oak panelled, soulless rooms, full of pin striped suits pouring wine. If all you have to offer is trestle tables and a cold buffet then it does not matter how cool climate your wines are. You run the risk of your wines being unloved and unbought.

But surely we don't have the time or money to be turning tastings in to “winetainments”?

Why not? It's about changing our collective mindset about how we as an industry are talking and promoting wine to the end consumer. To get that right we have to start with ourselves and how we talk and sell wine to each other. It does not need to cost any more money, it just needs more creative thinking, and risk taking to do things differently that are genuinely as memorable and exciting as you claim your wines to be.

What about retailers and restaurants?

Again you don't need to be hiring Billy Smarts Circus to sell a few more bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But you need to start offering more than a plate of salami and cheese to get people to turn up for a tasting. Look at last month's Wines of Argentina Barullo event which started off as a normal tasting and ended up as a full on rave with DJs from Shoreditch House. We've come a long way from expecting to be entertained It Ain't Half Hot Mum-style, but we still need to find new and fresh ways to “raise the rafters” and put a “hey, hey, hey” in to everything we do.

Why wine has to find a way to free itself from the shackles of the multiple grocery sector

This all sounds rather grown up, what do you mean shackles? Isn’t over 80% of wine sold in grocery retailing?

Yes, it is and probably more when you factor in c-stores and online. Which is all well and good when the dynamics of grocery retail are all swimming in the right direction for the benefit of all. But in recent years the driving factors within the grocery sector have changed. They have been turned upside down to become an unhealthy imbalance of power between the big supermarket chains, beholden to their share prices, and the privately owned German discounters that have no investors to please and can play a completely different game, backed by the strength of their global retail networks. Throw in the spectre of Amazon, that can afford to run a retail empire based on never seemingly having to make a profit, and you have a trading environment that is uneconomic for even the biggest FMCG brands, never mind the impracticalities of the wine retail model.

Phew! That's a lot to get off your chest. But why is wine at such a disadvantage in the current retail environment?

Wine businesses supplying the retail sector are no longer in control. They’re being forced to make decisions about where and how they sell their wine which they know to be unsustainable in the long term, but unavoidable in the current retail climate. That’s if they want to continue to have their products on shelf, and cash flowing down their supply chain. The knock-on effect of that means the wine industry as a whole is like a boat in the wash of a retail super tanker being thrown this way and that.

So what’s the big fix?

It’s not one answer, but a multitude of things. The big issue the wine industry has versus other packaged goods, including beers and spirits, is you can’t just turn a tap on to produce more wine when the market needs it. But that does not change how major retailers source, buy and sell wine. Wine is seen as even more of a commodity than it ever has been. Used to drive not just footfall to retailers’ stores, but full on stampedes with people queuing up at dawn to get their hands on £3.99 German discount-sourced bottles of Prosecco.

So what can we do?

The biggest change has to come from within the Big Four supermarkets themselves. They need to regain their confidence and start acting like the world leading chains they were once famous for being. For at least the last five years they have stopped driving their own agenda in the interests of their shoppers, but have been fixated on copying and following the retail strategies of the German discounters they are simply not equipped to compete toe to toe with. There has been a serious lack of leadership and direction from the supermarket sector. Just look back 10 years ago and the chief executives of the Big Four grocers were leading business figures in their own right. Everyone knew what each of the supermarkets stood for. But where are the Justin Kings, Terry Leahys, Allan Leightons or Lord MacLaurins of the current generation of retail leaders? What has made matters worse is the discounters, that have this magical power over the Big Four, have a policy of not talking to the City or the media and explaining what their retail strategy actually is.

Anything else?

Tesco is getting its act together again. Chief executive, Dave Lewis’s turnaround strategy is starting to make a real difference to not just the company’s bottom line but the confidence of the wider grocery industry. The wine sector could be about to benefit from those changes. Last week’s announcement that Tesco is to move its commercial strategy and development director, Robert Cooke, to head up its BWS division, is arguably one of the industry’s most significant news of the year. The fact you’ve probably not heard of him is potentially a good thing. The wine department is going to be led by a senior Tesco executive with direct contact and relationships with the board. He is not a wine trade professional beamed in from outside the company. Let’s hope he uses his influence with the board, he was formerly Tesco’s commercial operations director, to drive a sustainable, profitable wine strategy that goes back to mutually benefiting its suppliers and customers.

What steps should the industry be implementing?

We have talked recently about the steps wine companies are taking to take more control of their futures. This has to continue and become more widespread. Be it consolidating and growing their buying power; investing in technology, data and insights to make themselves more relevant; adapting their financial model to cope with a post Brexit future; focusing on innovations, new products, packaging and formats that provides solutions for retailers and customers to benefit from.

And finally?

Wine businesses can also be braver and actually say no to the buying demands of the supermarkets and discounters. No-one is forcing anyone to sell wine that is uneconomic. There are now many ways to drive your wine business forward, and different growing channels to sell your wine too. The current multiple grocery retail environment makes making those changes even more of a necessity than ever before.

Why big and small businesses need to work together for mutual benefit

Sounds like you've been reading too many corporate annual reports. What are you on about?

You're not wrong there. My secret summer reading. But if you look closely enough it seems in the modern business world, big and small can and should work together. Rather than David spending all his time trying to kill Goliath he would better off finding a way to catch his oversized eyes and cosy up together.

David and Goliath, really?

If it catches your attention, then yes. You only have to cast your eyes over to the spirits industry to see how many of the major drinks producers now have their own strategically important innovation hubs set up to specifically work with and invest in start up businesses. Diageo set up its Distill Ventures hub as long ago as 2013 and has already spent £50 million in seeding and funding new spirits entrepreneurs. Pernod Ricard has followed suit with a similar Ventures initiative where it offers up to £1m to invest in startups. These drinks giants have realised the business potential in working with companies who might in sales terms be minnows, but who might have the edge in dreaming up the next creative, cutting edge idea.

You mean nick their ideas for themselves?

You might say that, but I couldn't possibly comment. The explosion in craft beer and spirit products has changed the rules for even the world's biggest drinks companies. They are no longer the all powerful, dominant figures they used to be. They also know they can't keep their investors happy by relying on year in year out growth for all their global power brands when drinks categories are being stretched by an increasing number of niche, more on-trend, craft-driven brands. The likes of Diageo can't compete by creating the cool artisan, authentic brands that consumers now increasingly want. But they can learn from the entrepreneurs behind those brands to find what trigger points they are using, what social media platforms are best for reaching their target customers.

Sounds interesting. What else?

Running these startup hubs has moved up the corporate agenda even more now the major grocers are cutting ranges where even Diageo and Pernod Ricard products are not safe. It is happening right across the food and drink industry where R&D budgets are notoriously much smaller than in other industries - making up only 3% of the $680m global industry spend on R&D, according to PwC. Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell Soup and Unilever all run similar funding schemes. Unilever says such initiatives are going to be vital for business success in the future. Aline Santos of its start-up division, The Unilever Foundry, says working with startups “can no longer be viewed as an optional's a strategic imperative”. Adding: “Startups are now widely recognised as invaluable sources of innovation, fuelling growth and providing pioneering business solutions.” Which does not say a lot for the well paid Unilever executives working alongside them.

So how do these start-up initiatives work?

There are all sorts of arrangements and partnerships being set up where the whole purpose of the link-up is for mutual benefit rather than being purely predatory. They simply would not work if they were. A startup might agree for a drinks giant to take a Dragons Den-style stake in their company in return for seed funding and expertise. Take Seedlip, the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit, which allowed Diageo to take a 20% stake in its business to help fund growth and development.

But surely these big drinks giants are looking to ultimately gobble up their competition?

For some, yes. Particularly in the beer industry where all the world’s biggest brewers have now bought up craft beer brands. Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired 10 alone in the last few years. But again the time comes when smaller players are happy to take the corporate dollar. Super hip Innocent Drinks is now part of Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever.

What about the wine industry?

There is, as yet, not the same level of partnership or strategic thinking that start-ups or smaller businesses can take advantage of working with major wine producers or distributors. But it is surely only a matter of time. For all the talk of consolidation in the sector, if two major distributors come together it is only creating more of the same. It's not radically changing the way they work or re-inventing an increasingly broken wheel. Big merger and acquisition deals are also high risk with no guarantee of success.

So how could it work?

Well, what if a national drinks distributor signed strategic partnerships with smaller merchants to bring flair and dynamism to their range? There has to be more room for collaboration and partnership between large and small distributors and importers. Where one can help each other, be it with range, contacts and creativity on the one hand, and efficiencies and distribution on the other. If it makes good business sense for both sides then what's to stop more David and Goliath partnerships evolving in the future? It can only be good news for the industry if it brings out the best of both sides for the benefit of all.


Why to sell more wine we have to know how to sell more beer and spirits

Sounds like you have been drinking all three. What are you talking about?

That's actually my point. We might in the wine trade be obsessed with all things to do with grapes and vines, but the majority of our customers aren’t. Wine is just one of a number of drinks they might have during the average week or month.

Yes, but what’s that got to do with beers and spirits?

Well, think it through. It makes sense for us to know the kinds of other drinks our wine customers are also purchasing. What sort of beers, ciders or spirits do they turn to on a night out? In an ideal world we would also know the kind of food they like, what sort of restaurants they go to, the holidays they go on. All of which help us build up a 360 degree picture of the kind of customer we are trying to attract. For deciding what sort of wine you want has become more of a lifestyle choice, as it is a desire to drink a particular grape variety or explore a certain wine region. 

“Too often our trade teams are split category by category and never the twain shall meet. Sommeliers are in charge of the wine, and bartenders stick to their cocktails.” 

OK sounds interesting. What else?

Looking at consumers more as drinkers rather than just through the prism of wine allows us to see them in a completely different way. It helps us to understand, for example, why there has been such a surge in interest in craft beers and spirits in the last three or four years. Products that are much easier to produce and tap in to the overall general consumer demand to explore and try out new things and experiences. We have talked a lot before about how the smart phone has not only opened our eyes to so many more possibilities in our lives, but has made it far easier to go out and get them. We are no longer having to rely on the tried and tested and the likes of Judith Chalmers to tell us which holidays to go on, or Delia Smith what dishes to cook. We are constantly on the look out for what’s new, different and exciting. The world has opened up and it’s all available at the touch of a button.

So what are we seeing across the drinks trade?

Supermarket drinks aisles and pub back bars are now made up of brands and products that have been created to serve a specific consumer need or drinking occasion. It is why we have seen such an explosion in new beers, ciders and spirits that are constantly changing before our eyes. Those categories have been far quicker to realise the need to personalise, even pigeon hole if you like, their offer and target specific customer groups or create brands that are occasion and experience driven. They also don’t have to rely on the vagaries of the weather and annual harvests to get their products on shelf.

And what about wine?

Just look at the two big wine success stories in the last three years. Sparkling wine and rosé. Both are, in their own way, riding the same wave that has been so successful for craft beer and spirits producers. Products that are on the one hand aspirational, yet affordable, but are also creating specific drinking occasions for consumers to enjoy and treat themselves.

So wines, beers and spirits should work together?

Well, for all the talk of having separate bespoke trades for wines, spirits and beers, they are usually all sold together, or at least next to each other. Be it in the BWS fixture of a supermarket or across the back bar of the average pub or bar. The majority of independent wine merchants also sell beers and spirits. And if they don't they probably should be. But how much notice do we take of what is being sold in which category and why? Too often our trade teams are split category by category and never the twain shall meet. Sommeliers are in charge of the wine, and bartenders stick to their cocktails. Yet watching, analysing and talking to your customers about the beers and spirits they buy will teach you a lot about the kinds of wines you should be listing too.

In what way?

It can help determine quite how adventurous your customers are, and how willing they are to pay for it. Do they stick to the Stella and Gordon’s or prefer a Belgian Pilsner and small batch distiller. How happy are they to trade up to exotic beers and untried spirits?

Anything else?

Forget the drinks industry for inspiration. You could just ask them if they would stick or twist at 14 in Blackjack. If they twist, go heavy on the Grüner Veltliner, local craft ale and Bathtub gin and if they stick, keep stocking up on the Pinot Grigio, Fosters and Smirnoff. 

Could bigger formats and gifting be the saviour for wine brands?

You sure? That’s a lot of gifts to go around.

Calm down. One step at a time. But, whisper it gently, things are a-changing down the local supermarket wine aisle. The wall of wine is slowly being broken down into more distinct areas, where we are no longer just confronted with row after row of exactly the same sized bottle of wine.

You must be going to different stores than me.

Well, it’s not everywhere, but if you know where to look then there are some very interesting changes taking place. Each of the major multiples all have their trial stores where they bring us freshly made coffee and ironed newspapers long before the rest of us get to see them. It is in those stores where you are seeing new additions to the wine aisle. Particularly different formats, bigger sizes, magnums, and where limited edition gift packs are being used to make shopping the wine aisle a bit more of an experience.

What’s bringing all this about?

It won’t be the first trend that starts in the on-trade and ends up in our supermarkets. Flick through any on-trade report worth its salt in the last couple of years and sales of bigger sized bottles, particularly magnums, are giving Prosecco a run for its money. Which is good news all round, as bigger formats should, in theory, mean better margins. The recession may have made us all far more cost conscious consumers, but as the boom in sparkling wine has shown us, we are also far keener to find ways to give ourselves a treat, and share new experiences. Splashing out on a bigger sized bottle of wine ticks both those boxes.

What about gifting?

Well, unless you are constantly celebrating something we are not buying these bigger sizes just to drink at home. Instead they are being seen as the ideal alternative, but ultimately super safe gifting option. Ideal for a memorable wedding present, or to add a bit of theatre and drama to a dinner party.

What does this mean for brands and the wider wine trade?

It could potentially shake up what’s being sourced elsewhere down the wine aisle. For the last 10 years it has been the rise of the super varietal that has driven supermarket sales. Shoppers may not know their Nuits-St-Georges from their Walker Bays, but they know which grape variety they like. It has created a Premier League of grape varieties that now rule the world.

So where does gifting and new formats fit in to that?

If they continue to grow as they are now, it does tip the scales a little back towards all those producers and suppliers that have invested so much in developing wine brands. Proper brands with real values that don’t just introduce a Pinot Gris to keep the chattering classes happy. They now have the opportunity to develop well designed, positioned and beautifully executed larger formats and gifting options for their brands. New packs and bottles that crucially move them up the pricing ladder.

Sounds interesting, anything else?

For the brands that get it right it potentially moves at least part of their business out of the wine aisle completely. They could now become very relevant to those more premium shoppers looking for new ideas for their occasion-driven shopping missions. The opportunity to engage with higher spending consumers in a completely different way. It also gives them the chance to be sold in different retail environments, like at airports or in premium department stores. It would mean rather than look for a mention in one of the weekly national wine columns - rare for a mainstream wine brand in any case - it will become far more exciting to be featured as part of the gifting ideas sections that pad out women’s lifestyle and luxury magazines.

Who’s doing this well?

Well of course nothing is really new. If a wine brand really knows how to succeed in the gifting arena then they only have to look over to the Champagne brands as they have relied on gifting boxes and larger formats for decades.

What other ‘gifts’ have you got for us?

Well, for the more premium supermarket wine brands it offers the chance for salvation. The opportunity to escape the sword of Damocles that stands above any brand on a multiple fixture. Super size yourself, get out of the rat race, trade up, find a pretty box to put yourself in and the world can look a very different place. 

* This is part of the latest Grapevine news and views review produced for the London Wine Fair. You can sign up and subscribe to receive Grapevine here.