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Liberty buoyant but cautions market will remain tough in 2018

Published:  17 January, 2018

A slowing economy, with falling on-trade sales, smaller lists and people drinking less is the predicted outlook for 2018, according to Liberty Wines managing director David Gleave MW.

Speaking to Harpers at Liberty’s busy annual tasting in London, where several new agencies were unveiled (see below), Gleave said that Liberty had “had a really strong calendar year, growing well, having added Sogrape to our portfolio, but with growth in double digits even if you strip that out”.

In 2017 Liberty added what Gleave described as as “a record number of accounts, and very good accounts” to its customer base, bringing the total to around 2,500 on-trade customers.

Asked about the wider on-trade scene, though, Gleave cited figures showing that around two million cases have “disappeared in the last three years” from the market, while on a more optimistic note adding that “the average selling price has gone up, people are drinking less, but we are seeing them trade up”.

“This year will be as difficult as last, if not more so, I don’t think much will change in 2018,” he said.

While conceding that 2018 would be another tough year for all, so in a sense a “level playing field”, the feedback from Liberty was that consumers, and especially younger consumers, are becoming more demanding in terms of what they are offered, expecting quality for their spend. Older consumers still account for the lion’s share of on-trade wine spend, said Gleave, but younger consumers are prepared to spend if the offer is engaging and fresh, and the story is strong.

“Lists are getting smaller, and writing a small list is much more difficult, but it’s also a fact that those restaurants that are doing really well now are those that are really focusing on quality of service and quality of product,” he added.

With pressure on operators to deliver excellence at the point of service, the feedback was that resources for back of house activities, including dealing with a large number of suppliers, has been diminished, meaning that restaurants continue to streamline and deal with fewer suppliers.

Liberty’s approach to this, said Gleave, has been to remain as a specialist, taking care to add wines that sit well with the rest of its portfolio.

“We have our specialist areas, but when we’re going into an area, we’re not just saying we need a wine to put on our list, but asking how do we do it as a specialist, with complimentary wines to our portfolio as whole,” explained Gleave. “How can we get the best wines - it takes more time, it’s more expensive, but it makes it more credible for our customers.

New wines to the Liberty portfolio shown at the tasting included: Morris of Rutherglen (Australia); Maximin Grunhaus (Germany); Biondi Santi (Italy; and Framingham (New Zealand).