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The revival of the monthly wine club

Published:  30 March, 2020

With subscription services fuelling the lives of many, it makes sense to add wine into the mix. Pre-lockdown, Chris Wilson looks at the new players pushing past the wine clubs of the 1980s.

Subscription services are very much ‘the thing’ at the moment; be that TV (Netflix), music (Spotify), snacking (Graze) or plants (Bloombox), but the subscription concept isn’t new. In fact, wine was an early adopter of the model – I can remember my parents enjoying their monthly Sunday Times Wine Club mixed dozen during the 1980s while listening to the shiny new CDs delivered in the post via the Britannia Music Club (Dire Straits probably, or Paul Simon).

The Sunday Times Wine Club was launched by wine mail-order giant Laithwaite’s in the early 1970s and both are still going strong. They have been joined at the sharp end of the mail-order club market in recent years by others, including Naked Wines, and all offer a subscription service.

These aren’t the only operators in this market, however. A number of independent merchants have got in on the act and set up their own wine clubs offering customers (locally and across the UK) various ways of ordering and enjoying wine.

Independent merchant Vinotopia, which has a shop in Tetbury in the Cotswolds, launched its wine club four years ago. “It’s a very simple concept,” says managing director Jeremy Hill.

“We swap most of the retail profit for a monthly membership of £25 per household and members join for a year at a time. This enables members to buy anything on our list in any quantity. If members buy a couple of £10 bottles each week they are breaking even on their membership. If they trade up to £15 bottles then they are making a profit on the deal.”

Flexibility is key

What stands the Vinotopia club apart from the bigger subscription services is that as well as ordering any number of wines from the shop’s catalogue the members have the first crack at small parcels of hard-to-find wines that are brought into the business.

For Simon Taylor at Winchester’s Stone, Vine & Sun, flexibility is the key. “We don’t demand anybody sign up for any period and you can mix up the cases in many ways,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of hand-tailoring that goes on.”

The Doorstep Dozen Wine Club was launched in 2006, four years after Taylor set up the business, and customers can order a monthly or bimonthly mixed case of wines. “The key advantages for our customers is that they get about 10% off the retail price of the wine and free delivery,” says Taylor. “We’re not doing what Naked and Laithwaite’s are doing and offering huge amounts of voucher discounts to get new customers, then moving people on to what one might term ‘over-margin wines’.”

Loyalty pays

Hill believes that the loyalty his wine club generates is paramount to the success of his business as a whole.

“We have the loyalty of repeat business customers rather than occasional purchasers who buy from many retailers,” he says.

A new online-only merchant, Feel Good Grapes, launches this spring and part of its offering will be a subscription service. Set up by Mike Turner and Toby Flood, Feel Good Grapes is aimed at the “environmental and socially conscious wine drinker” and will offer a range of wines across the sustainable, organic and biodynamic worlds.

Speaking about the subscription service, Turner says: “The aim will be to have a mixed case of six every month. It’ll be nothing too flash or massively different, practically speaking, from dozens of others, just ours will be focused on wines that you can be genuinely proud to be buying, while investing in these wineries.”

Given the nature of the wines in each mixed six it won’t be the cheapest wine subscription on the market – “you’ll be looking at £100-£150 for a case of six at least” – but Turner likes the idea of adding a subscription element to his mix as it will help the business get off the ground.

“A nice upside of subscription services is that it gives you more confidence on stocking and on investing in better quality, recycled, recyclable, and low-carbon packaging and transport solutions,” he says.

The upside for Taylor is the addition to his retail mix that the wine club brings. “It makes up a small percentage of our turnover, but it’s a supplement. You have to be pretty agile as an independent merchant and we’ll sell down every single channel we can: mail order, online sales, on-trade and to other merchants. You’ve just got to do what you can.”

Far from seeing the wine club as a challenger to the traditional indies proposition he believes it strengthens his hand. “A lot of our Doorstop Dozens actually go to regular local customers. That way you are always delivering new wines to people and they often come in to the shop and say they liked a particular wine and can they have a case of that. It’s a good shop window in that regard.”

Jeremy Hill agrees. He says the Vinotopia wine club makes an indie more valuable to a local customer. “We can source wines for clients and as we talk to them we can be more helpful as we can recommend certain wines that they will like – all at the best price,” he says.

Club Demographic

Do subscription models like this draw younger customers to wine and tap into the younger generation’s desire to source and purchase products via more modern means? Not really, says Taylor: “Our demographic is mainly older people who like mail order.”

Vinotopia has a similar demographic. “As often as not it’s people who are older and who are more into wine – they get the fact that if you are buying a bottle of wine for £5 you are getting rubbish. It’s the people who think along those lines who see the value in joining the wine club,” says Hill.

He’s found that wine club members are not necessarily looking to save money, but see the advantage of spending the same amount of money and trading up. “They will buy better wine as a result of joining the club and that’s the sort of customer that we’re looking for,” says Hill. If he can sell his customers – whatever their age – better wines, he’s happy.