More champagne corks than ever will be flying this Christmas, making the sparkling stuff a must-stock for retailers, as Kate Miller explains

Not long ago the pop of a cork on a bottle of fizz was a noise that was only ever heard at parties or by the very well-off. However, the rise in the popularity and availability of affordable sparkling wines has meant that people who like their wine bubbly can indulge more often. Mintel senior analyst Katy Child says that while the sector is still small and heavily skewed toward Christmas and New Year promotions, discounting and targeted marketing at women and the gifting market have seen new consumers enter the category. HIM marketing manager Georgina Wild says that these trends spell good news for c-stores: "It's still a small proportion but it's definitely increasing. These trends can be related to the convenience sector in the sense that people are obviously selling things like cava and sparkling wine. It doesn't need to be Champagne. People are quite happy to have sparkling wine for special occasions and also to buy it as a gift, so in the run up to Christmas people will expect to see sparkling wines available in convenience stores."
According to Mintel, sparkling wine sales grew by 23% between 2000 and 2005, with new premium wines coming into the market but value growth remaining low, and the average price falling by 10%. Over the same period champagne sales grew by 30%, with volume and value keeping pace, and the average price falling only 4%. About 55% of Champagne and 79% of sparkling wine is sold through the off trade.
In Mintel's 2006 report into sparkling and branded wine, the research company set out to identify whether the greater accessibility of Champagne and sparkling wine meant a blurring of the distinction between them in the minds of consumers and a consequent loss of prestige for Champagne. The report shows that while sparkling wine has become a more accessible drink, Champagne remains, for most people, a treat, meaning that any slight change in drinking habits has a huge impact on the market and that consumers may be looking for a bottle of more expensive Champagne to go with their sparkling wine at Christmas.
Mark Johnson of Celebrations Off Licence in Stockport, Cheshire, says that he sees a definite trade up at Christmas, even from people who buy cava year-round: "People who buy sparkling wine go up to champagne at Christmas, but we also sell a lot of cava, which can range from a fiver up, and we find that people who normally spend £5 on a bottle will go up to around £8. People want to pop a cork at the dinner table at Christmas."
To cash in on the gifting market, Mark makes up hampers with a bottle of Champagne, a couple of glasses and a box of chocolates in a nice basket, wrapped with cellophane and a bow: "It costs pennies to do - £1.50 for the basket from the wholesaler, £1 for wrapping and the bow and then it's just the cost of the Champagne and glasses. And the great thing is it's not price sensitive."
Another retailer who is looking forward to the Christmas wine trade is Nusrat Hussain of Grange Moor Off Licence in Wakefield.
Following implementation of the FWD Take Home Blueprint, she saw wine sales rise by 80% in four weeks. She didn't expect the rise to extend to the sparkling category, but it did.
"The Blueprint people advised me to chill Champagnes and sparkling wines and they've done really well," she says. "It's amazing for a c-store and off licence, but we sell a bottle of £35 Champagne a week and a few of the £25 ones. We've been in the trade for 25 years and always thought that not many champagne buyers come to
c-stores, but they're coming in on a weekly basis because they know we've got a good range."
Ross Shelley, scheme director for Blueprint, points out that some retailers are using the Putting Leaders On Display scheme for Champagne and high value sparkling wine. The scheme, initially implemented for spirits, encourages retailers to put high-value alcohol bottles out in the main aisle by using unbreakable security caps.
The caps mean that anybody who steals the bottle has to break the glass to get the liquid out- making it undrinkable and unsaleable. The scheme has been trialled successfully in a number of stores and is due to be rolled out to 1,000 retailers in England and Scotland in early 2008.

Customer's view

Sarah Rogers,
Houghton Regis, BEDFORDSHIRE

"My partner Mick has always liked Champagne and we used to have a bottle at the weekend. But it's expensive, so we thought we'd try some of the cavas which have the fizz of Champagne but are an eighth of the price. It was a nice, light, dry, crisp wine that was affordable. I also found that I didn't seem to get a hangover with it, or the headache I sometimes get with other wine. For about six years we've not really been drinking anything else. I sometimes have the odd glass of still wine, but not often. Mick will occasionally mix it with orange juice, but I like it as it comes.
"We do have a treat at birthdays and Christmas and Champagne does taste different - but it's lovely to have it as a treat and keep it special."

Retailers' views

Of course, sparkling wine and Champagne only make up a small percentage of the amount of wine sold at Christmas. Nusrat Hussain of Grange Moor Off Licence in Wakefield says: "I'm really looking forward to Christmas. This year I'm hoping to do really well. Our wine sales are better today than they were last Christmas anyway. I'm actually stocking up the wine today. Last year there was a big rush on beer, but this year I'm paying extra attention to wine as well."

Mark Johnson of Celebrations Off Licence in Stockport says that retailers can help themselves by doing a bit extra: "Our Christmas trade is similar to what we do
all year round in terms of special offers, like three for 10 and two for eight, but where we capitalise on it is in fine wine - we notice people trade up. We also offer extras such as gift wrapping - if the customer is giving the bottle away as a gift we offer to wrap it in cellophane with a nice ribbon and we don't charge for that. We also up promotions to case prices, but try to avoid the lower price promotions that are available in supermarkets."

Wine at Christmas

Make sure you cash in on customers' willingness to trade up (and show off!) at Christmas. Stock wines, sparkling wines and Champagne at higher price points. Mark Johnson of Celebrations Off Licence has observed that people buying wine as a gift often think that they have to spend more money for it to count as a present: "They feel that they have to justify it for themselves because, after all, their friend won't know what it cost." If you've got space, offer some special gift packs or gift tags, wine bags or even a gift wrapping service.

Of course, you should already have your white, rosé and sparkling wine in the fridge year round - but if you haven't, now's the time to start. Nobody likes warm bubbles.

Make sure your customers know what you have to offer. If you can highlight any offers and promotions outside the store as well as inside, then all the better.

Blueprint scheme director Ross Shelley says retailers should consider wine tastings in the run up to Christmas: "Get out of the comfort zone. We do wine tastings at c-stores and we've had as many as 48 cases sold in an evening."

Think about more add-on sales by cross-merchandising other gift items such as chocolates and seasonal flowers, or plants like poinsettia.

Don't forget distress purchases between Christmas and New Year - another opportunity to pick up sales. Who wants to queue at the supermarket at Christmas?