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Independents: Open to trade

Published:  03 April, 2020

With merchants fast adapting to survive, Andrew Catchpole surveyed the indie scene to discover how companies are adapting.

As Harpers went to press, we surveyed the independent merchant sector, generating a robust response from over 50 operators to questions as to how they have flexed their business models and sought to drive customer engagement.
 A takeaway headline is that there is still a lot of confusion out there over grants and furloughing staff, with more clarity and ease of access needed (see our Cash Crisis piece, with links to business support).

Elsewhere, the much-reported boom in sales, with on-trade shut down and home stocking ongoing, continues apace, with one merchant reporting: “Before this crisis we did no private client sales at all, we are now doing 250 orders per week – infinite % up!” Another simply replied: “Exponential.”

This continued uplift, though, is by no means universal, with some already struggling financially as footfall drops away and orders (for them) slow to a trickle. (We hope some of the initiatives on these pages will help boost business.)

There has also been uplift generated by irregular supermarket stocks of wines and spirits, with some seeing “a large increase from local people buying in the main cheap wine because the supermarkets have run low or out completely”.

What is apparent, though, is quite how active many have been, drumming up willing support from local community, working with other small businesses to make cross-category and food-linked deliveries, and generally adapting to the needs of their locked-down customers.

“Customers seem genuinely grateful that we are still available, albeit operating as more of a trade counter than a conventional shop,” sums up the goodwill out there for our indie sector.

The Harpers indies survey

Is your bricks-and-mortar outlet open for business?

Yes: 36%

No: 64%

If doors are open, do you see this as sustainable?

Yes: 51%

No: 49%

Are you still taking orders and making deliveries?

Yes: 100%

No: 0%

How are you taking orders (if still trading)?

Online: 34%

Phone: 14%

Other: 52%

(mix of online, email, phone, in person with strict social distancing in place)

If trading online, how much have online sales risen as a % over online sales during a ‘normal’ period?

Answers here varied enormously, but with one clear trend – sales online, via website and email, have shot up across the independent trade “exponentially” in most respondents’ cases.

Taking out those that did “very little before”, and thus have seen huge rises from a tiny base, most figures ranged between 30% and 100%, with several respondents coming in much higher. In most instances these increases have to be offset against the loss of any wholesale trade, and also a major drop in footfall for those who are still selling direct to the public (safely) from store

Any initiatives you have
introduced or are looking to introduce to help generate or further boost revenue during
the lockdown period?

(We’ve rounded up some of the most common replies here, plus some great initiatives that caught our eye.)

↘ “Additional discount for NHS staff.”

↘ “Linking up with other small, local, independent businesses.”

↘ “Have produced a couple of inexpensive mixed cases to make ordering simple. Encouraging word of mouth ‘spread’
via community Facebook pages/WhatsApp groups.”

↘ “We are allowing a sort of click and collect whereby we can put the wine in the car boot with zero contact.”

↘ “More social media, online videos, etc. Mixed cases of the online bestsellers.”

↘ “We have extra vans on the road delivering, and are looking to streamline the phone to one ‘call centre’ rather than the current situation where each location is busy taking orders as well as processing internet orders.”

↘ “Doing deliveries free for a minimum of six bottles within the local postcode and stocking more basic whisky, gin and a greater range of bottled beers to facilitate the orders from
new customers.”

↘ “Dropped minimums for free local delivery
to £15 and combined food & drink deliveries
to homes across Wales with free delivery over £60. Facebook campaign to promote positive services.”

↘ “£50 or £100 cases of NZ Sauvignon, Malbec – effectively supermarket wines bottled in the UK.”

↘ “We have parking so contactless collection
is easy. Doorstep deliveries self-explanatory. Loyalty vouchers are proving popular.”

↘ “We have reached out to friends, family and our customers now at home – through their networks mostly we have reached 400 new customers in two weeks.”

↘ “We have compiled several mixed six
 and 12 packs at set pricing to encourage experimentation with our range. We have introduced deli goods like pasta, tinned tomatoes, ground coffee, Easter chocolate and are doing daily delivery runs covering a broad local area, having coordinated with our local bakery and butcher to deliver from all three to one address.”

Any initiatives you are doing or planning to introduce to boost customer engagement during lockdown?

↘ “Lots of social media engagement.”

↘ “We are planning an initiative whereby a local chef will devise a recipe and we will match it with a bottle of wine – this hasn’t got o the ground yet as we have been too busy!”

↘ “Our sister training company is working on a number of online tasting initiatives as well as publishing for free tutorials online. Our online training is seeing good demand too and we are running some online WSET courses.”

↘ “We’ve set up a Zoom tasting group.”

↘ “Looking at virtual tastings.”

↘ “Too busy with the food side of our business (up 150%) for that sort of thing.”

↘ “Helping the NHS workers, focusing as ever on English wine and overall value and quality.”

↘ “We are ordering special cases with donation to Age UK.”

Regarding supply, are orders reaching you and has the frequency or reliability of supply changed?

↘ “Orders are reaching me just fine. Most suppliers have cut their minimum order requirement but after the last two weeks I am ordering considerably more than a normal month.”

↘ “Suppliers are ordering small order minimums.”

↘ “All our orders and shipments are arriving normally from France, Germany and Italy. We also have a shipment from California just loaded and on the water.”

↘ “Supply situation is variable, at the moment some (not many) of our growers have shut down operations of their own volition.”

↘ “Frequency has definitely changed and some credit terms too.”

↘ “Only a few wholesalers still operating and some breweries have either closed or no longer deliver as far. As such we are running down stocks and just relying on a few key products to fulfill orders.”

↘ “Some of our suppliers have closed. Others have picked up extra orders as we are super busy.”

↘ “Selling through stock first – we need to generate cash.”

↘ “We are using stock we import but we so
far have had no problem with supply from
UK agents.”

↘ “We ship the vast majority of our wines and supply has mostly remained consistent and only marginally slower.”

↘ “So far so good but I have been warned that some lines will run out soon.”

↘ “Suppliers have been uniformly excellent, lowering minimums, keeping delivery slots open and generally being remarkably flexible. A huge hats off to our supply chain.”