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Cambridge indies react to coronavirus uncertainty

Published:  20 March, 2020

Cambridge-based Chris Wilson gets on his bike for a taste of what it’s like for those at the sharp end of wine retail.

As the Coronavirus pandemic deepens we are witnessing a mass mobilisation of indies across the country – some offering ‘knock and run’ services for those in self-isolation, others looking at ‘drive through’ options so customers can roll up in their Volvos to collect their mixed case without ever leaving the car.

Other creative endeavours involving independents include virtual tastings, curated mixed cases and voucher schemes, but by far the biggest upsurge has been on the delivery front.

I live in Cambridge – a city with an embarrassment of quality independent wine shops – so ahead of possible lockdown or self-isolation I got on my bike and visited a few local indies to discover first-hand what they are doing to service their customers in these challenging times and how business has changed over the past few weeks.

At Noel Young Wines in Shelford, just outside Cambridge, upcoming tasting events have been cancelled but Young says he’s seen an increase in ‘through the door’ custom as people stock up on wine.

“We have seen a bit of a spike in mail order, we have seen more people coming in and buying cases of wine in the last few days than we would normally, and we’ve been busier with third-party websites like Vivino than normal,” he says.

He’s very quick to add though that he’s fully expecting a dip in footfall. Young has emailed his customers explaining that the shop is open and that strict hygiene measures are in place, but he’s deeply worried.

“If people start getting laid off, we are all going to be absolutely fucked and you can’t plan anything for that,” he says.

His business has traditionally been one third retail, one third mail order and one third wholesale. The wholesale side has dropped off completely overnight as trade customers cancel their orders but he hopes that delivery – especially local delivery (free to anyone with a CB postcode for any orders over £50) – will continue to pick up.

“We’ve reassured our customers that we are doing all we can; if you do want to come here, we are here to serve you and if we can deliver it to you we’ll do it. In these times we should be looking after local and small businesses as much as we possibly can,” he adds. “If you want to come in and have a bit of respite we’re here for that.”

Across town at the recently opened Grape Britannia in Chesterton owner Matt Hodgson is feeling the pinch too.

“After the typical January lull, things had really picked up in February, and then last week footfall dropped away dramatically,” he says.

He’s continuing his ‘drink-in’ operation for now and even managed a tasting event this week which over two-thirds of ticket holders attended despite the option of a refund.

“Whether this continues is another matter,” he says. “We may close simply from lack of demand - even if we personally are happy to continue, it's not economically possible to stay open if we only get a couple of customers an evening.”

Like Noel Young Wines there has been a spike in online orders at Grape Britannia in the last few days. “The orders have generally been for a larger number of bottles than our previous average - people stockpiling English wine, perhaps,” says Hodgson.

He has abolished his minimum order value (previously £30) to offer free delivery for residents in the City of Cambridge, and hopes this will continue to keep this side of the business buoyant.

“We deliver by our wonderful box bike within the City of Cambridge and are looking forward to the exercise from the extra miles we'll hopefully be cycling in the next few weeks. Customers can order online or over the phone,” he says.

Another independent hoping to deliver wine (and beer) by Dutch cargo bike over the coming weeks and months is Thirsty (pictured), which has two branches, one in Chesterton and the other in the city centre.

Owner Sam Owens says that last couple of weeks have been busy. “It’s been a combination of customers stocking up and people thinking ‘we’re not going to do this for a while so get it while you can’,” says Owens.

Thirsty’s operation leans heavily on ‘drink-in’ and Owens is concerned that when this inevitably drops off the business will struggle hugely.

“I suspect it’s a matter of days until we have to shut ‘drink-in’. Then we will shut the King Street shop completely and operate on a significantly restricted hours for take-out only at our Chesterton Road branch,” he says.

Owens understands the delicate balance he has to strike at this difficult time.

“On the one-hand we have a responsibility to the wider community and we must do the right thing given that we are place where people congregate, but on the other hand we have responsibilities towards our staff, people who are vested in the business and to our suppliers and partners,” he says.

He is in the process of establishing an online shop which will offer free delivery in and around Cambridge, as well as looking at gift voucher scheme which will give his customers the opportunity to put cash into the business now when it’s most needed.

“It’s a call to arms to customers. We will ask people who work in jobs where there is unlikely to be disruption to them getting paid, if they want to see places like Thirsty still here in six or 12 months’ time. If so they can stick a bit of cash in our account now to help us through this phase which can be redeemed when things return to some sort of normality,” says Owens.

“We have just got to stockpile a war chest as I’m looking at a massive reduction in turnover and margin. We have to plan on this sort of major disruption for as long as a year,” he adds.

Cambridge Wine Merchants has three branches in the city, two in the centre and one on Cherry Hinton Road, near Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Head of Retail Clive Pawsey says that closing its ‘drink in’ side of the business will cost “in excess of £15k revenue per week”.

The last seven days has seen a decrease in footfall across all branches and Pawsey is resigned to the fact that it’s only going to get worse over the coming weeks.

“Indies will certainly have to become creative over the next few weeks,” he says. “Rumours are that London will be on lockdown by this weekend, and I am certain that Cambridge will follow suit within a week.”

To this end Cambridge Wine is pushing the delivery and mail order side of its business. It offers free delivery in Cambridge on six bottles or more and a ‘one click mixed case’ offer to help customers in decision making is being rolled out online.

“We will do all we can to meet our customers’ needs,” says Pawsey, who has spent this week working in the company’s warehouse helping to fulfil online orders and get stock to where it’s most needed.

“Wholesale has decreased to next to nothing, but retail and internet are both bigger than usual. Wholesale is over 50% of our business, so this is difficult, but retail and internet are higher margin so there is some compromise there,” he says.

Across the board it’s a pretty bleak picture, but each of the businesses I spoke to have plans to try to maximise sales where they can – which realistically is in the mail order/deliver field – and hope to remain nimble enough to react to the inevitable changes over the coming days and weeks.

“I’m always a believer that out of adversity can come opportunity,” says Sam Owens. “This is a situation which presents huge difficulties, but you’ve got to approach it positively.”