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Looking ahead: Neil Bruce, Fuller's

Published:  26 July, 2018

As the first half of 2018 draws to a close, Harpers asked key trade figures to highlight the current challenges, ongoing trends and opportunities

We continue our series with insights from Neil Bruce, head of wine at pub operator, Fuller's. 

1. How has the first half of 2018 been when compared to the same period in 2017?

From a wine perspective, April wasn’t a great month, partly due to weather. May was better and June was very good, albeit a tad hot for wine sales generally and with wine sales skewed slightly by the World Cup.

Most of our new wines have sold well, especially our new ‘skinny’ Prosecco (less than half the normal sugar). Our English sales keep growing, and so are a number of other specific wines in the range, especially at the more premium end.

As a quarter overall, our wines sales are in a very good place. Like for like volumes are down slightly, especially of entry level wines, which I’m not worried about. But consumers are definitely trading up. Every commercial measure is looking good so far.

2. What, currently, are the biggest challenges for the trade?

Some sectors of the trade have all sorts of quite structural problems – including the uber-large distributors who continue in their headlong race to the bottom.

From a Fuller’s perspective, wine inflation is my biggest concern, increasing risk of wine becoming an “unaffordable” luxury. This is closely allied to ebbing consumer confidence and a shroud of Brexit-related uncertainty, plus woeful lack of leadership by our so-called politicians. I’m also concerned about the next budget and the risk of irrational duty rates rises, depending on which government is in place by then.

3. And challenges that are Brexit-related?

As above. Isn’t Brexit the UK’s biggest crisis since WW2?

4. What’s your strategy for meeting those challenges during the second half of the year, through autumn and leading up to the crucial Christmas trading period?

We are increasing our wine by the glass offer in foodier sites, in our own pubs and customer’s sites, and encouraging trading up - partly by adding ‘Cellar Select’ lists as addendums to core wine lists.

These feature interesting, slightly left-field wines that might otherwise struggle to get on a core wine list, including half bottles, dessert and fortified. We update wine lists in the autumn as a matter of course, to reflect the change of cuisine and wine drinking as temperatures drop and nights draw in. There is invariably some switching of sales by wine type and colour as the seasons change. We’re aiming to build on this on the run up to Christmas.

5. And where do the opportunities lie?

Offering more wines by the glass and enabling trading up, albeit in accessible steps. This assumes quality is a given, which it certainly isn’t in some of our more price-led competitors.

6. What will the focus be on with regard to your portfolio?

We have a long shopping list of specific wines are looking for, for next spring. But that I can’t go into just yet. We’ve only just started working with the team at Bel & The Dragon on their autumn wine lists. They are a very exciting addition to the Fuller’s family. And some of their needs will surely be reflect in next year’s portfolio.

7. Any other trends that you anticipate?

As ever, the devil is in the detail. We will be adding more breadth to our range for next year, partly to cater for the four We are Bar sites we bought in April but also the six Bell & The Dragon sites we acquired in June. Probably more English wine - still as well as sparkling - as well as further biodymanic and natural wines.

Some of the macro trends, based on first quarter and summer, include:

o Less is more (consumers drinking less, but better wine)

o Sauvignon Blanc (in its various forms, style and price points)

o Picpoul (we’re adding a fifth to our range, to keep up with demand)

o 20cl Prosecco (a major part of the total volume now and still growing)

o ‘Ethical’ wines (which for us are organic/biodynamic/natural and lower sugar – ie our new ‘skinny’ prosecco)

o Pinot Noir (and lighter styles of red generally)

o Albarino (Rias Baixas) and Verdejo (Rueda)

o English wines, still whites and rosé as well as fizz – and its success has nothing to do with Brexit

8. How optimistic are you? Will business for the drinks trade be better or worse between now and 1 Jan 2019 compared with last year and why?

It depends on your definition of ‘better’. Weird seems to be the new norm, so who knows what is round the corner. Perhaps a proper trade war, led by The Donald? Maybe he will back track on that too.

From a UK perspective, for all the talk about adding value back to the wine category, I can’t believe how little seems to have changed since Conviviality’s collapse in administration, regarding price deals led by the really big, national distributors.

Pricing has to be sustainable, for all parties. Ultimately, you get what you pay for. If anyone in the trade stands still, they are going backwards. We have to keep pushing (a quality first agenda) and moving the wine agenda forwards. Come what may, I am reasonably confident consumers will still seek out and enjoy a good glass or two of wine next year, especially in sites that clearly care about quality. The flip side of that applies of course, and we know the sites that aren’t too fussed about quality. So I’d much rather be working for Fuller’s than any of our competitors.