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Reimagining the high street shop for drinks retailing

Published:  13 November, 2020

A renewed focused on shop-front retail has led to a rash of new openings, from Manchester to Birmingham and Surrey, writes Jo Gilbert.

Opening its new shop in the midst of a pandemic probably wasn’t something the Oxford Wine Company (OWC) had on its radar for 2020. But that is precisely what has come to pass, with MD Ted Sandbach and co finally having exchanged the keys on a former Oddbins site in Jericho’s Little Clarendon Street.

With the move, the OWC continues to strengthen its hand as the de facto supplier to a region that’s steeped in tourism and academia, while removing another competitor from the city. (With the loss of the Oxford store, Oddbins now has a single one-off branch in Liverpool, with the rest centred in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh.)

Its new site takes the total number of OWC shops to three in the region, with an out-of-town HQ, a concession shop at Millets Farm and a wine cafe – also on Little Clarendon Street – completing the picture.

It also gives the company a retail presence in the back streets of Jericho – the city’s former red-light district that, in happier days, was a breeding ground for tucked-away pubs, bars and cafes.

According to Sandbach, Oddbins and the university – which owns the site – had tried to offload the shop for a while, and for a steep sum. Sandbach himself had also been looking for a third site in Oxford for over a year.

So why now? Why during a pandemic?

Apart from the “unreliability” of Oddbins, and the store’s “proven record as a wine shop” – Sandbach’s words – it might have something to do with the fact that business has boomed for many independent merchants since spring. While the on-trade was shuttered, with businesses forced to close completely or pivot resources into extra earning revenue streams such as home delivery, the indie sector was digging deep into retail roots. It was attracting new walk-in customers who had diverted from supermarket queues, with the same effect replicated online.

In OWC’s case, sales have evolved from a 70% wholesale, 30% retail split pre-lockdown to a “balanced” 50/50 in November. Sales for the whole company for September are up 20% on the same period last year. “Remarkable really,” when you consider the situation, says Sandbach.

New endeavours

It’s not only OWC that’s realising its retail ambitions this year. Both Loki Wines – Harpers’ Best Midlands Indie 2020 – and The Vineking are undertaking new retail endeavours. For Loki, this will be its third store in the Birmingham area, but will take the company outwards into leafy Knowle, known for its timbered library, its thriving high street – and its residential footfall. Founder and MD Phil Innes, told Harpers: “We have had great success with the online side during Covid, and have managed to drastically increase our turnover while giving us a route to market that we didn’t have before. I think the online side is here to stay in the long run, and will be a side that will continue to grow.

“However, I still believe that bricks and mortar have a place and is where we really excel. I also believe that this virus isn’t going to last forever and I want to be in a position where we can capitalise on people’s desire to physically go somewhere after all these lockdowns.

“I certainly don’t want to become an online-focused merchant, as I think that takes away from the core principles of Loki, which is that we hand sell every bottle to customers, and give people a unique experience in store. It’s not something we can quite replicate online.”

The Vineking meanwhile, has embarked on a major project in Reigate, taking over the town’s former Laura Ashley site. While the company currently has several shops and two bars spread across Surrey, this new three-sites-in-one store will vastly increase its retail capabilities, with plans to expand the deli and hamper offering.

Increasingly, it seems that as the on-trade suffers, independent retailers are discovering new customers, partly by accident or circumstance, and partly because of canny moves online and in store towards lockdown-friendly locations.

While venues in the on-trade, such as Vagabond Wines (see p46) have been able to pivot to DTC, thus shoring up some revenue, these aren’t primary channels. Independents have diversified, too. But in many ways, they have been able to consolidate their offer, moving away from regional wholesaling and returning increasingly to their core strengths.

Call for help

Things aren’t picture perfect for the nation’s indies, however. Following the news of lockdown 2.0, which was increasingly becoming a reality as Harpers went to press, some have called for more help for small retailers via a ‘shop out to help out’ scheme, as well as a windfall for topping up city centre footfall shortages.

Wine merchants seem to have benefited disproportionately from lockdown compared to small businesses in other sectors – particularly those with strong ecommerce platforms.

It is likely to do so again, if wine is indeed designated an essential shopping item as it was back in April. With a hard winter looming, however, Sandbach tempers his optimism around the future of merchant business.

“The smaller businesses have done really well so far this year. They’ve discovered new audiences who appreciate personal knowledge and attention. Not many have done badly, but things are going to start getting difficult. I suspect many firms will have already decided on redundancies so it’s a little late for some who may have had a reprieve after Saturday’s announcement. The news on Europe sounds more encouraging than a few weeks ago, but if the government reintroduces business rates again in the spring, we will see a further tranche of company collapses and an even greater recession than anticipated,” he says.

With stockpiling and competition from the supermarkets possibly on the horizon once again, the focus has to be on shoring up the in-store experience and stock availability.

As Emily Silva, head of marketing at OWC, says: “You have to think of ways to stand out. In store, we’ve organised a selection of products, which are thoughtfully put together by an expert. These mixed cases worked really well for us this year. Before lockdown, we were 70% wholesale, but we’ve been able to redeploy house wines from the on-trade into these mixed cases, which have been really successful. On the internet, there’s always going to be someone cheaper than you, so you can’t always compete on price.”