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Indies: Retaining new customers once ‘normality’ resumes

Published:  15 May, 2020

With the on-trade on lockdown, indies have reaped rewards from the pandemic, but will they be able to hang on to their new customers once restrictions are lifted? Lisa Riley investigates.

A slew of consumers “new” to the indies sector has emerged from the woodwork during the Covid-19 crisis, with independent merchants up and down the country welcoming shoppers who have, for several different reasons, switched from previous suppliers during lockdown. With some bigger names unable to cope with demand and supermarkets initially running out of stock, consumers have turned to local independents, which have been allowed to trade and remain open throughout lockdown – deemed essential businesses while the on-trade remains shuttered.

The real challenge now is how to hold on to these customers.

In many ways, these outlets have adapted the way they trade in order to remain open, such as hybrid indies moving back to the off-trade model and offering local deliveries. Or indies with a strong wholesale arm being fleet of foot to remodel, diverting that stock direct to consumers and therefore remaining operational, saving jobs and businesses.

This, says indie supplier Hatch Mansfield, shows “amazing adaptability of the sector and individuals”.

“Businesses like this will work hard to keep these new customers,” says James Manson, director of regional sales, at the same time pointing to the traditional values of indies as key to keeping these “newcomers” returning.

“In normal trading times the thing that makes an independent wine merchant stand out from the crowd is its personal service and going the extra mile. This has been key during the pandemic, it is more like the extra marathon than mile,” he says.

“Who can predict what the future holds but if an independent has built bonds with ‘new’ customers it is bound to pay some dividends for the future. It has certainly enhanced their presence in local communities.”

Upping the online offer

This view is echoed by the Oxford Wine Company, with owner Ted Sandbach saying that while how to keep the new customers has been “subject to some discussion here and opinion is split”, he is hopeful that the service the company has offered during the lockdown will go a long way in ensuring repeat business.

“I am hoping that as we offered such a great service (24 hours) that, provided they enjoyed the wine and the experience, they will work out that delivery from a reliable source is so much easier with less carrying, etc,” he says, while also pointing to the local community aspect.

“I feel there is a strong move to support local, family-run businesses and I aim to keep about a third of this new business. We don’t want to go down the gimmicky route of special offers and cheap deals. We want good margins and loyal customers, and they get great service and drinkable wine,” he says.

With two things taking Sandbach by surprise – the “roaring trade” in retail from the company’s Botley Road shop and “more importantly” the online side of the business, he says discussions have taken place on how to build on the latter.

“I have plans and staff in place to develop a third major string to our bow alongside wholesale and retail. We did almost five times more web sales in the first week of the shutdown than we did in the whole of December last year and this has not let up,” he says.

A new website was planned anyway, he adds, 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”.

But as the country emerges from Covid-19 and heads straight into a deep recession, will the traditional indie qualities and sharper focus on online be enough to keep those new shoppers coming back, or is there a need to radically reposition ranges to meet lower consumer spend? And, if so, how can they do this without dumbing down the indie ethos?

While acknowledging that “indies will of course need to recognise that there will be more pressure on consumer spend and have wines at price points that meet demand”, Jeroboams does not believe that this requires a radical repositioning, says managing director Hugh Sturges.

“Good indies do well because of the breadth and diversity of range through which they offer value. The supermarkets have always and will continue to dominate the low-end price point wines and I expect that given the need for growers to sell there will be more offers rather than fewer,” he says.

Vital customer focus

In the independent sector, it will be more important than ever to “know your customer – an advantage we often have over the supermarket – and understand and meet their needs”, adds Sturges.

Coming from the same school of thought, Sandbach says there is “no need to dumb down the range or the indies’ point of difference. It has to be geared around quality and service”, also pinpointing free local delivery as significant.

“We are getting over 100 private orders every day and we deliver within a 40-mile radius daily using our own vans. Our plan is to move towards free national delivery for all orders over £75 and our new website, currently being built, will cater for all this and more,” he says.

Local, however, is key, he adds.

“We are supporting all local breweries where we can as many do not have the infrastructure to cope with demand.”

On a final note, and in another nod to quality, Manson looks to the past to predict the future, saying “we have always seen in previous downturns that consumers still look to treat themselves and turn to established names and producers during those times.

“We also know that value is important and sometimes it is better to spend a little to more get that.”