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Retaining the online bonanza

Published:  04 August, 2020

With life returning to a version of normality, independents that gained extra sales are now once more facing their old competitors. Lisa Riley finds out how they are coping

Following a surge in online customers during lockdown, boosted both by supermarkets initially running out of stock and the shuttering of the on-trade, indies up and down the country have been busy trying to hold on to these new consumers.  

But is the reality proving harder than expected, or are indies managing to walk the walk? If so, how? And what are proving the biggest hurdles to success in retaining those consumers as footfall returns and we enter a time that offers a semblance of normality?  

Two weeks into the on-trade springing – if somewhat subdued – back to life, the jury is still out as to how feasible this is proving, with some indies reporting a slight slowdown compared to the lockdown peak, while others insist that sales have remained buoyant.  

“We seem to be doing a higher number of web orders now than we did before lockdown,” says Greg Sherwood MW, senior buyer at Handford Wines. 

“I think as well as retaining new customers, it’s also that regular walk-in customers and private clients have become more used to, and more comfortable with, ordering from our website or from our special-offer cases that change weekly,” he adds. “It’s positive for the business overall.”  

This is echoed by Jeroboams, which says it hasn’t seen any recent downturn in the numbers of visitors to its website or the numbers of orders being placed. 

“I very much believe that we will continue to see customers who have purchased over the past few months returning to the site to make new orders,” says CEO Matthew Tipping. 

Only launched in May, the Jeroboam website has been “very successful” to date, he adds. “Although we don’t have historical data to compare, we now have increased ability to individually target our communication to the needs of both our existing customers and our newer website customers.”

Having gained “many new online customers” during lockdown, Flagship Wines paints a slightly different, if still positive, picture. 

“While we have seen repeat orders from a significant number of them, those who were looking for the cheapest wines due to lack of stock in supermarkets have, in many cases, returned to their old habits,” says owner Julia Jenkins. 

Loki Wines goes a step further, with owner Phil Innes saying it is currently seeing a “slight slowdown” in online trading now that lockdown measures have been eased.

“We had a number of customers from rural areas whose local merchants were not offering such a comprehensive delivery service, but now are saying they want to go back into store and we are too far away from them, so unfortunately these customers don’t look like they will be returning. 

“We also don’t have a huge amount of storage and distribution space, and this was one of the key factors stopping us from reopening the stores as we couldn’t run both at the same time,” adds Innes. 

However, he says, “we currently are seeing a number of customers still wishing to buy online, and sales are still strong”.

Mixing it up

In a bid to keep the online sales momentum going, Loki has put “significant focus” on its e-commerce site, says Innes, including improving the look and navigation of the online store, as well as refining photography, and putting pre-mixed cases online. 

Sherwood says Handford’s “much wider” selection of mixed cases and special-offer cases are selling so well that it is having to change the offers more regularly than expected. 

“We are also offering some quite rare and allocated wines traditionally, in smaller three-bottle packs to broaden the access of these wines to more customers, not just private clients who buy early and pre-release normally,” he says. 

Online tastings have been another tool to maintain online sales, both for Loki, which says it has done a “significant amount” in this area, and for Jeroboams.

Tipping says: “For example, we have teamed up with Wines of South Africa and also Dan Nicholl in South Africa, from the Dan Nicholl Show and Dan Really Likes Wine show, to offer mixed cases that will be sent out monthly for a Zoom tasting online with Nicholl, one of our MWs and also some of the winemakers.”  

New bespoke wine cases for companies and sports clubs members have also proved “very popular”, he adds.

Turning its focus on mixed cases, Flagship Wines followed up orders with personal emails and its weekly customer communications and social media, ensuring customer awareness of its local and national delivery service, says Jenkins. 

Looking ahead

A key sticking point for indies’ online sales going forward, as Jenkins points out, remains the convenience of supermarket shopping now many people are returning to work.

Moreover, for fine wine in particular, the personal touch and experience available instore is an obstacle also faced by indies trying to maintain online sales, says Sherwood.  

“As a fine wine merchant, the secret to our success over 31 years has been our personal advice, service and knowledge of two MWs on hand to customers pretty much every day. Fine wine is all about the expertise and conveying this to customers. It’s not as easy to do this online or on a more distant interpersonal basis,” he says.  

On a more positive final note, the government’s recent decision to make it mandatory to wear masks in shops could provider a further spike in online sales, says Jenkins.  

“The use of facemasks in shops may be off-putting to some people. Also a second spike and lockdown that are being forecast may mean on-line offerings become very important again,” she says. 

The big question is, she finishes, “can the carriers cope with ever-increasing business?”.