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Living with lockdown - Oxford Wine Company

Published:  17 April, 2020

Ted Sandbach, MD, at Oxford Wine Company, gives Lisa Riley a glimpse of the realities of life as a multifaceted indie merchant adjusting to lockdown.

“The Oxford Wine Company and the rest of the group have had to deal with different situations and make some big adjustments. The Oxford Wine Cafe has obviously closed completely with all staff furloughed but because the rateable value of the property is over the £51k threshold there is no magic grant payment so we just have to sit it out whilst our landlord insists on charging full rent although deferred. I am paying half and we can argue about the rest later! 

“The Sandy's Piano Bars (Oxford and Chelsea) have closed completely, the latter two weeks after opening! George Sandbach, the owner, has furloughed all staff and the London branch does not qualify for any grant payments. The early signs are that the landlord is sympathetic but in Oxford there is an insistence on full rent being paid, albeit deferred.   

The Oxford Wine Company initially kept all shops open to compensate for the trade accounts completely drying up. However after a slight false alarm, and when Boris announced that wine was an essential purchase, we reopened Botley Road, which is very accessible, and our head office and shop near Witney. Turl Street remains closed, partly because Oxford city centre is dead but also because the space was too small to successfully operate social distancing. Again our landlord has insisted on full rent. Has anyone spotted a pattern here? Would one possibly suggest that they are still chatting over early evening sherry?   

“Two things have taken us by surprise though. Firstly the roaring trade in retail from the Botley Road shop and secondly and more importantly the mail order/web side of the business. We have laid off 17 staff but kept on eight and we spend the whole day fulfilling mail order - we get over 100 drops a day at sensible prices and money straight into the bank. The drivers have been magnificent and in most cases we are turning around orders in 24 hours. These eight staff are working six full days a week and we have all (myself included) worked out a slick but tiring routine which is proving mega efficient. The web is being managed carefully and by utilising  our reserves in bond and some UK suppliers we are keeping stocks at a sensible level. Orders from Europe are taking a little long but with so many lines we are still offering a comprehensive range to the public. 

“The real challenge now is to hold on to all these customers who have emerged from the woodwork and stop them going back to previous suppliers, whether that be a supermarket or mail order company. With some of the bigger names being unable to cope with the demand we now need to capitalise on this. 

“Discussions have already been taking place as to how we take this forward and I have plans and staff in place to develop a third major string to our bow alongside wholesale and retail (four shops). We did almost five times more in the first week of the shutdown than we did in the whole of December last year and this has not let up. A new website was planned anyway but we now need to capitalise on the marketing and social media. We now recognise the huge contribution web orders can make to our profit and our cashflow. Maintaining this service will be hard but the future is exciting - we are all very bullish here.

“I hope other independent merchants are coping - we wish you all well and just hope that the public at least begin to realise that supporting your local merchant really does make sense.”