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Changing perceptions at Davy's Wine Merchants

Published:  13 February, 2017

Many will have fond memories of Davy's wine bars, which throughout the 1970s and 1980s was at the forefront of the emerging wine bar craze

Many will have fond memories of Davy's wine bars, which throughout the 1970s and 1980s was at the forefront of the emerging wine bar craze.

Still ostensibly associated with its traditional wine bar image, in 2017 Davy's is now rethinking its approach, expanding its on-trade reach into Greater London in order to reach a new audience, as well as re-branding themselves as a competitive wholesaler serving the wider London area.

Most recently, the family wine bar group announced it was expanding the El Vino wine bar and shop for the first time since taking over the keys in 2015.

By the end of February they will have opened a 3,000 square foot wine bar and shop at the heart of the city, increasing the number of El Vino sites to four.

El Vino's wine bars and shops sit side by side on the high street, drawing on the success of the hybrid model adopted by Wine Rack, the Oxford Wine Company and Vagabond to name but a few.

But while wine businesses are diversifying their offering by adding an element of the on-trade, it might seem that Davy's' focus is heading in the opposite direction.

Plans are currently underway to refresh their profile as fine wine merchants and also their wholesale side of the business, which until now has been used predominantly to supply their owns bars.

"It's been an advantage that we've had our wine bars to supply, but we also have a base and a warehouse and vans which gives us opportunity to supply other people," fifth generation chairman and CEO James Davy, told Harpers.

"Broadly speaking, the wine bars account for two thirds of the whole, but there is an opportunity to be doing a lot more on the retail and wholesale side. We're still small in comparison to the big names, but we're growing every year and our size means we can be exclusive on small deliveries."

Established in 1879, the Davy's business model was historically based around its reputation as fine wine merchants.

But this changed in the latter half of the 20th century when the company became synonymous with its wine bars. 

This is an image problem that the company is dealing with to this day.

"For several decades we were known generically as 'Davy's wine bars'. It's been an interesting challenge to become perceived as merchants and wholesalers," Davy admits.

"A lot of people say 'but you're wine bars, aren't you?'"

The group differentiated in the 1990s with fine wine private cellars and in the 2000s with a strengthened online presence.

But while Davy isn't fazed by the challenges posed by the current challenges affecting retail, he does recognise the power of combining bar and shop.

The hybrid model is something they've experimented with in Holborn, where they offer 40 wines by the glass via Enomatic machines and enjoy busy after-work trade in the evening.

The group is currently planning to expand this approach, increasing the number of its 24 wine bars into Greater London, where the sting of rising rents and property prices is less keen.

"Rates and rents are rising forever upward," said Davy. "Also, we still want to be seen as indie and niche, and if we open too many in central London, the perception is that if you're too large you become uninteresting. Moving outwards also gives us the opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to a new audience and also open more agile locations.

"Our focus will still be to focus on people who are engaged or who want to be engaged with wine. There's a lot of good wine out there and a lot of fairly indifferent wine. We're hoping to pick up passing trade and form a loyal customer base locally.

"With wholesale, we can serve the on-trade from our depot in Greenwich or by local pick up."