A Wine Merchant in the time of Covid

18th May 2020

Strange times indeed: last March I was really worried about the future of SVS – the closure of the on-trade looked like a huge 40% sized hole in our turnover. I wrote a letter to our customers expressing considerable trepidation, and to encourage sales we decided to reduce our minimum spend for free delivery to £75; and we increased our discount on unsplit dozens of the same wine to 10%.

Fortunately our customers responded magnificently – it was great to get so many orders with messages of support.  But now I am a little embarrassed. The last week of March was insane (remember when the supermarkets were rationing people to three bottles of wine and people were panic buying Pinot Grigio) but whilst this waned we are still running flat out. We sold more wine in April than we did last December, always the biggest month of the year in the wine trade.

So why are we so busy?  I think a lot of different (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) things are going on at the moment, but these factors seem to be benefiting us.

  • First, there’s no question that more people currently have the time to read and engage with our printed lists. There are not that many old-fashioned mail order merchants left – and now many people have more time at home they can browse lists at leisure.  Likewise wine drinkers may have a little more time to engage with our website rather than just doing the default of running off to the supermarkets or Majestic.
  • “Localism” – people are showing a desire to support local businesses rather than anonymous far-off giants.  We hear this often now.
  • People like the fact we can offer better service; and in particular a fast and firm delivery date rather than the vague guideline offered by the big boys (if you can get a slot at all).
  • Just as people are being more adventurous with their cooking at home, so they are more prepared to experiment and try different wines (again, rather than default to old favourites). We stand to benefit if people choose to bake their own sourdough rather than eat sliced bread – it shows they care what they put in their mouth and will appreciate artisanal wines.
  • Changing purchase patterns.  Some people are taking larger quantities of cheaper wines than usual (perhaps they have young adults at home who should normally be in London or at university); and others are definitely trading up as decent wine is one of the few accessible pleasures now. Whichever, it's more turnover!

Of course the new way of working can be challenging and labour intensive. Instead of (pre March) dropping 5-10 dozen at a local pub we are picking, packing and delivering a lot of single cases, often of 9-12 different bottles. But who’s frightened of work?

The one thing I regret is shutting the shop.  We just don’t want anyone near us. If one of the core team gets ill the remainder of the staff will all have to self-isolate and we would have to shut down temporarily.  That woud be sad when we have so much wine to give!  We will survive.....

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