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Independents turn to experiential approach

Published:  01 March, 2016

Independent drinks retailers are currently facing a double whammy with supermarkets providing consumers with the convenience of picking up drinks with their weekly shop, while discounters are providing the sort of low prices that are hard to ignore.

Independent drinks retailers are currently facing a double whammy with supermarkets providing consumers with the convenience of picking up drinks with their weekly shop, while discounters are providing the sort of low prices that are hard to ignore.

Squeezed between these two forces, some independents are turning to an experiential approach to make more of their retail offering and entice customers to stay longer, explore more and ultimately increase their spend. The trend is on an upward curve at the moment, with obvious tricks such as produce tasting areas encouraging food and wine pairing, but the potential is there for a more experimental and engaging approach.

The challenge for non-multiple retailers is to find reasons for consumers to visit them and to stay longer. Supermarkets are simply about transaction - we want to be in and out as quickly as possible - and that limits the interaction possibilities. Even an upmarket player like Waitrose, with its impressive drinks selection, leaves the shopper largely to their own devices when it comes to selection.

Independents' salvation comes down to the fact that drinks are not purchased solely on autopilot. Consumers want inspiration and information, and savvy stores can provide it in spades. Borders recognised this when it started to encourage customers to grab a coffee, take a seat and crack the spine of a book. In such an unhurried and relaxing environment, the reader was more likely to find something that they wanted and ultimately buy it. Drinks retailers have to forge the same kind of relationship with their consumers, and the best are very good at it.

By creating an experience rather than just being a transaction point, consumers spend longer with the retailer and are encouraged to buy more too. It goes without saying that a wine and spirit merchant like Berry Bros. & Rudd has a superb range of wines and spirits, but its customers come as much for the advice of its knowledgeable staff, and its wine schools and tutored events.

The traditional retailer experience has expanded hugely at an outlet like Hedonism. It stocks 5,500 wines and 3,000 spirits, many rare and quirky and the whole experience is about luxuriating in a world dedicated to drinks. It's designed to create a completely comfortable environment where you want to engage with staff, many of whom are trained sommeliers from top Michelin starred restaurants.

Hedonism has elevated the whole experience to another level. The environment is sumptuous with displays of glasses dangling above tasting tables and the whole place is temperature and humidity controlled. Six Enomatic wine machines allow tastings of up to 50 wines at any one time.

The store delivers in Central London within an hour and you can get a wine specialist to come to your home. It even has a kids' fun room to keep them occupied while their parents are otherwise engaged.

At the more mainstream end of the market, Glug in Putney specialises in hand selected wines from Portugal, teaming them with artisan cheeses. Again drinkers can sample from Enomatic machines, encouraging them to stay longer. Dwell time in the store not only allows customers to become more comfortable, it also encourages people to be social in a real setting, sharing their knowledge and enjoyment. We are so bombarded with information these days that peer advice and recommendation is a powerful enabler for customers.

When it comes to educating and informing the consumer, technology is inevitably having more of a role. Where consumers feel awkward about asking what they may be seen as dumb questions, technology can fill the gap. For example, whisky is an area where there is a lot of information that can be complex and confusing to novices. The Whisky Shop Piccadilly uses tablets to let customers find out about different tastes and distilleries, helping demystify the scotch world.

It's just one example of how drinks retailers are trying to think differently. If you start from the premise of a shop being a shop then you end up with a solution that is based around display. However, if you think of creating a window on your world and a place where people like to spend time, then you end up with something completely different, personal and engaging. And in a world where retail is tending towards the homogeneous, that is a powerful USP.

Giles Calver, planning director

Giles joined Sedley Place in 2010, having previously been managing director of Lippa Pearce for 16 years before working as a consultant in the sector. He's developed a broad range of planning and project direction skills and now spearheads Sedley Place's brand and design strategy. He advises clients on tone of voice, messaging and copywriting and has also written three books: What is Packaging Design?, Retail Graphics and Terminal 5: Transforming Heathrow.