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Transparency and honesty key to good independent supplier relations says Harpers debate

Published:  08 October, 2014

Open communication and a clear channel management strategy are they key to a strong, healthy relationship between independents and suppliers was the key message from yesterday's Harpers debate been leading independent merchants and suppliers.

The open session allowed both independents and suppliers the chance to discuss with each other the issues, challenges and opportunities they face when working together. In a series of frank exchanges it was also clear that large steps have been taken in better understanding the pressures both sides have taken particularly over the last 18 months.

The debate also centred around the Harpers Best Practice Guidelines that were set up three years ago this month following similar debates between independents and suppliers.

Harpers announced it was formally relaunching the Best Practice Guidelines, complete with a new logo and a revamped dedicated section of, along with new marketing opportunities to help suppliers that have signed better promote what they are doing to help and work with independent merchants.

A number of the 20 suppliers that have signed up to the Guidelines took the opportunity to explain how they are using them in their day-to-day business relations with independents and encouraged other suppliers to step up and also pledge to follow the Guidelines in their businesses.

Laurie Webster of Las Bodegas spoke for many when he said the Guidelines were "not rocket science" but "just good business practice".  He added: "As far as the guidelines go, we have always done this.  This is not new."

Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene agreed the Guidelines were "common sense and good business practice". But also stressed "communication is a two way process" and that he would like to see independents respond better and be more open to suppliers that contacted them.

He also said there were now increasingly "blurred lines" between those independent merchants that were purely retail and those that "work as a wholesaler" and that this could potentially become a bigger issue over the next three to five years.

World Wine Agencies Nicky BurstonWorld Wine Agencies Nicky BurstonBurston believes the independent sector should go further and build up joint business plans between suppliers and independents

Nicky Burston of World Wine Agencies, that started its business only working with independent wine merchants, said following the Guidelines was "easy to do".  "I think anyone who wants to be in this sector needs to sign up."

It also makes good business sense, she stressed. "Since signing up we have had more customers open their doors to us.  Our business is based on four clear principles: clarity; transparency; honesty; and transparency.  But by signing up it makes you more pro-active We are putting our money where our mouth is."

Burston was keen for the whole debate between independents and suppliers to go to an evn more dedicated level.

"I would like us to take it further.  Why don't we work together with a joint business plan.

"We need to look above the parapet. We need to talk as a sector about why consumers should spend more with independents than anywhere else."

The debate also included a number of the major producers that have signed up to the Guidelines including Castel, Les Grands Chais de France, Maison Sichel and Codorniu UK, that has been on board from the outset.

Codorniu's Claire SheppardCodorniu's Claire SheppardBeen a committed sign up the Harpers Best Practice Guidelines for indpendents since it was formed in 2011

Claire Sheppard of Codorniu said by being a producer it "had a lot more control" over how it managed its own portfolio in the UK. But she added: "It is very easy to stick to the channel strategy."

Guillaume Bonnefoi of Castel in France said that before the company signed up to the Guidelines in 2012 it did a considerable amount of homework  to ensure it had the right channel management for each of its wines. It painstakingly went through all its 3,000 wines to determine which wines it would make exclusively available to independents.

Burston believes the independent sector should go further and build up joint business plans between suppliers and independents

But signing up to the Guidelines was only the first step, it takes a long time to change perceptions and to even get the opportunity to talk directly to independents.

"Only the people we are able to talk to understand what we are trying to do.  It is tough to get a meeting with independent merchants. But we are here to demonstrate we can and want to be successful with independents."

The debate was also attended at London's Hush restaurant by other supporters of the Best Practice Guidelines Hatch Mansfield, Castelnau Wine Agencies, Mentzendorff, Bottle Green and Hayward Brothers. Other suppliers included Hallgarten Druitt, Bibendum, Treasury Wine Estates and Kinglsland Wines.

Independent merchants attending the event included Jamie Hutchinson of the Sampler, Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants, Ted Sandbach of Oxford Wine Company, Julia Jenkins of Flagship Wines and Stephen Forward of Essentially Wine.


The Harpers Best Practice Guidelines are:

1. Suppliers that want to publicly endorse the Harpers Best Practice Guidelines should commit themselves to these principles and conduct a transparent relationship with their customers in the independent sector

2. That these suppliers commit to a transparent independent merchant strategy which makes clear which channels of distribution they are trading in. This should be made available on request to individual wine merchants

3. Independent merchants can request information from these suppliers on an individual basis about which channel of distribution the wines and spirits they are interested in stocking are distributed in

4. Sales representatives of these suppliers must be made aware of their distribution strategy covering independent wine merchants

5. These suppliers should, on request from an independent wine merchant, be able to set out how this strategy is managed within their company and understood by their own sales staff

6. That training and information is being provided on these suppliers' distribution management strategy to sales staff

7. That these suppliers should inform affected independent merchants if the distribution management strategy for a particular wine or spirit changes.

How to get involved

To sign up to the Best Practice Guidelines you need to set out how your business is complying with the guidelines. These will be made available on the Harpers website in the Best Practice Guidelines section and publicised to independent merchants.

To sign up please contact Richard Siddle on