Last year wine accounted for 31% of all alcohol sales in the run up to Christmas, but independents are still missing out on the party, says Kate Miller

Convenience store retailers need to take a long, hard look at their wine offering if they are to make the best of the coming Christmas season, according to HIM chief executive officer Mike Greene. "While convenience stores are making more of wine than they used to, they're not exploring it to its full potential," he warns.
Greene says that retailers often fail to understand customers' shopping missions when buying wine. At Christmas, more than at any other time, customers want to satisfy a range of needs rather than just look for a bottle to drink that night. Entertaining becomes a bigger issue at this time of year, but c-stores are still lagging behind multiples in recognising this fact. Greene says that the penetration into supermarkets in beer, wines and spirits increases fourfold when customers are on an entertaining mission.
However, this desire to buy beyond their usual shopping basket, combined with the fact that shoppers tend to be less price sensitive when shopping in small stores, means that there is an opportunity for c-stores to sell more premium wines at this time of year. "It's the understanding of the need state and missions that's missing. It's a mistake to assume everyone is price chasing."
Greene also points out that retailers shouldn't forget that some people will like a bottle of something while getting ready to go out. "The Jacksons c-store chain did very well with a Lambrini-type student offer," he points out.
Retailers also need to be aware of the changing attitudes to some premium wines - especially when it comes to a bit of the bubbly stuff. Whereas Champagne used to be seen as elitist, it is now far more accessible: "There's been a lot of work to make champagne more mainstream and it's almost seen as an hors d'oeuvre in Middle England - something to have before dinner."
And when people are looking for gifts, bubbly is often at the top of their shopping list, whether it's Champagne or cava, so retailers who may sell one bottle a year may find demand increasing in the run up to Christmas.
When it comes to merchandising, Greene recommends providing some basic information on the wines to help customers make their choice. "Consumers like a bit of special information, even if it's handwritten; just whether the wine is dry or smooth and what it goes with."
He recommends merchandising by wine type and colour, and siting some bottles in a secondary location to catch anyone in a rush. "People may be buying two or three items and may need a prompt."
While chilling is important, he says that chilled space will be at a premium at this time of year and retailers should be wary of removing other products, such as dairy, to make space for bottles. "You do need to increase the amount of space dedicated to wine, but it doesn't necessarily have to be chilled at this time of year as people will be buying more for later, so it's not so much of an issue."
Independents can't stock everything - they have neither the space nor the specialist knowledge - so knowing who your customers are and what they want is key. "In workshops we ask retailers if they know who their customers are and, of course, they say they do. But then we ask what their average spend is and what their age and sex are and they often realise that they don't really know them. You can't say you're in a customer-driven business if you don't know your customers."
This knowledge is vital when it comes to choosing your Christmas range. Greene says retailers would be foolish to ignore those major brands that receive a big advertising push at Christmas, but that the final decision of what to stock should be based on customer needs. "People are still listening to the most vociferous demands rather than the silent majority," he says.

the lowdown on wine buyers in c-stores

Female 57%
male 43%
18-24 14%
25-34 21%
35-44 24%
45-44 15%
55-64 11%
65-74 12%
Primary mission here today
Entertaining 29%
Top-up 20%
Distress 11%
News 8%
Frequent main shop 8%
Treat 8%
Meal for tonight 7%
Snack/drink 5%
Services user 1%
Fuel 1%
Source: Convenience Tracking Programme 2006, HIM

International Wine Challenge

If you want to buy wine with confidence, look at the label. If it has an International Wine Challenge award, you can rest in the certainty it has been judged to be good quality. The challenge is one of the most prestigious events in the wine calendar and is run in conjunction with Convenience Store's sister publication, Wine & Spirit.
An International Wine Challenge award means that the wines have been judged by 400 leading tasters in the biggest blind tasting in the world. This year there were more than 9,000 entries, with winners receiving one of four recommendations: a bronze, silver or gold medal - the highest awards; or a seal of approval, which means it is worthy of purchase. This year there were 278 gold medals, 1,051 silver and 1,447 bronze, at all all price points.

Top tips

Highlight wine at Christmas - both outside your store and in. Don't be afraid to change the store around to bring attention to the wines you have on sale, and display them both in their fixture and elsewhere in the store.

Christmas is the one time that your customers don't mind paying a bit extra for wine. They also want to impress their friends with the type of wine they take to Christmas parties. By stocking wines at a higher price point you could encourage customers to trade up. If you don't already stock sparkling wine, this could be the time of year to give it a try. Remember to keep your best-seller premium brands in stock.

Many people give wine as a gift at Christmas. Therefore, gift sets may provide the perfect solution and many brands produce special Christmas packs.
If you don't want to go down that route then why not offer festive wine bags? Place them both near the till and at the wine section for add-on sales.

Chill it - especially if it's sparkling! We say it time and again, but remember it's the way to differentiate yourself from the supermarket down the road. Many people will be on their way to a party or dinner when they drop in to pick up wine from you and will want chilled white, rosé or sparkling to take with them.

If you run any promotions on your wine keep them simple and make sure that you don't run out of stock and lose sales.

Don't just plan up to Christmas Eve - remember the few days between Christmas and New Year's Eve. This is the time that customers will be popping out to see family and friends, or will be doing top-ups for unexpected visitors.