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The Interview: Julia Jenkins, Director, Flagship Wines, St Albans, Hertfordshire

Published:  23 July, 2008

What was the starting point for the business?

I set it up on a very small basis, with just 12 wines, and then organised six tastings locally to test the water. I wanted to establish whether people wanted to buy the sort of wines I was planning to sell and whether they would be confident buying wine from me. By the following January, I had 50 wines on the list and the customer list was steadily growing.

Why did you decide to open the shop?

I needed more space, and I decided that a shop would give me the room I needed for the mail-order operation while also providing Flagship Wines with a tangible front that would raise its profile in the local area.

Has business increased since you opened the shop?

Yes, so far the shop seems to be generating its own customer base because people who are passing like to come in and have a look around. Some mail-order customers pop in, too, because we hold quite a lot of in-store tastings, which gives them an opportunity to taste different wines. Announcing the shop opening on the website also strengthened the on-line business.

How do you find competition from the supermarkets?

It's something that you can't ignore, but I decided not to try to compete head-on, which would obviously be a disaster, and instead to carve out a niche for the business. Convenience is very important to people, so we operate a delivery service, both within St Albans and also nationwide. And our range also is unlikely to be duplicated in supermarkets because we try to be individual. Customers can come in and have a discussion about the wines if they are interested in finding something specific. For a small merchant it's about generating a rapport with customers, something that is very difficult for the supermarkets to do because they have got huge numbers of people coming through the doors.

What is the main theme of your list?

I look for wines that are well-made examples of their type and quality, good value for money and not very widely available. I made the decision early on not to include Jacob's Creek and other major brands on my list, and customers are happy to buy the alternatives that we stock rather than the brands that they already know.

Are any wines particularly popular at the moment?

We are selling a lot of ros, in line with current trends, and there has been a resurgence of interest in German wines. We also sell a wide range of dessert wines.

Why do you sell so many dessert wines? Is that a personal interest?

Yes, I love dessert wines, but customers also come in looking for them. I've pulled them all together in one area, and I often find customers squatting in front of the range. We've got about 15 and they are a good talking point.

What about the interest in German wines?

There aren't that many wine merchants that have a good German range, and I've always enjoyed drinking good Riesling, so I kept my eye out for the opportunity to introduce more of them to our list. A German friend recently introduced me to a producer in Baden, and the wines have sold very quickly. I also added three more wines from Dr Loosen, ranging from 5 to over 12, and they've all sold very well.

What's the idea behind your current South African wine promotion?

I've tried to plan a series of promotions throughout the year, including a couple of big themed promotions, to provide a calendar of special offers and highlight certain parts of the range: I did a big Italian promotion last autumn, and at the moment we are focusing on South Africa. I've involved the suppliers and supported the promotion with a leaflet drop, customer mailing and in-store tastings.

Is there any advice you would give to someone wanting to set up an independent wine merchant?

You really have to work at developing your niche, but also stay flexible. Once the business is up and running you need to review and evaluate it constantly because customer requirements do change. You don't operate in isolation, and other businesses will develop their wine offer so you've got to be aware of that and make sure you are always offering people what they do want, not what you think they want. And don't be worried about talking to customers about whether or not they like what you are doing because you need to be open and honest with them and respond to what they say.

Flagship Wines Ltd, 36 Rowan Close,

St Albans, Hertfordshire AL4 0ST;

Tel/Fax: 01727 841 968;

Julia Jenkins set up mail-order wine merchant Flagship Wines in 1995, after taking a short career break to have children. Last August she expanded the business by opening a shop in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Jenkins began her career in the wine trade 25 years ago, working as a buyer for Saccone & Speed and then Booker Cash & Carry, launching Booker's own-label range in 1988. She went on to work as marketing manager for Sainsbury's wine department in the early 1990s and was responsible for launching its mail-order wine business.

Key Suppliers: Australian Wine Agencies, Bibendum Wine Ltd, Moreno Wines, Negociants UK Ltd, Seckford Wine Agencies, Stratford's Wine Agencies