From tasting events to in-store information, there are various ways to squeeze more out of your wine category and convert your customers to premium buyers. Robin Mannering reports

How can retailers uncork the revenue potential of premium wine? According to research from Pernod Ricard UK, 60% of wine shoppers are willing to purchase premium wine, which returns an average of £2.69 per bottle. But as many retailers know, wine on promotion will often dominate consumer behaviour, while the top-selling brands sit comfortably in the middle ground. Blossom Hill, Echo Falls and Gallo Family Vineyards lead the pack in convenience stores across the country, C-Store’s latest Top Convenience Products research found.

One solution is holding in-store wine-tasting events. Scottish retailer Donna Morgan, of Best One Brownlie’s of Biggar, initially introduced wine tasting as a way of distinguishing her store from the mults. “We started doing it about two years ago, after Sainsbury’s opened and our alcohol sales dropped,” she says. “We wanted to show people we had a better range.”

Donna and her husband Bruce now hold events every three months and have seen wine sales rise by about 20%. Furthermore, £8-£10 bottles of wine now account for the majority of sales. “Wine tasting is a great way of growing local recognition that you’re different with wine,” she explains. “People usually buy what they’re comfortable with, but they’ll try something new at wine tastings. It’s also a great way of moving slow sellers - for example, we stocked an Australian wine called Yalumba (£11.50), which wasn’t moving fast, but that changed after we included it in the wine tasting. We still sell lots of the standards such as Jacob’s Creek and Gallo, of course.”

West Sussex retailer Andy Short, of Selsey Off Licence, near Chichester, agrees that wine tasting encourages experimentation. “Wine tasting is for wines which people would not ordinarily risk buying,” he says. “There’s a lady who’s been coming here for years and always buys Blossom Hill. But she came to the wine tasting and ended up ordering a £9 bottle.”

The biggest seller at his recent inaugural event was a £15 New Zealand wine. “That’s big money for this shop, but it got the most orders on the night. We’re now selling two to three bottles of it a week,” he adds. “Wine tasting is also a great way of understanding what should go on the shelf.”

Jo Buist, of Chilbolton Village Stores, Hampshire, has seen wine sales treble since introducing wine tastings a couple of years ago. “Wine wasn’t our core area before, but we started focusing on it more after we changed suppliers to a local wine merchant,” she says. “Most wines we taste are about £10 a bottle, and we sell most of them on the night - we provide order forms and give people discounts.”

However, retailers tempted by the proposition are advised to contact their licensing authority. Jonathan James of James Graven did so after organising a one-off sampling day with his wine supplier at his Budgens store in Soham, Cambridgeshire. “They said they would be happy to allow this as a one-off event, but that if we wished to do further alcohol sampling we would need to apply for a variation to our licence. A member of staff would also have to be on hand on the day to ensure that Challenge 25 is complied with,” says Caroline Bosworth, James Graven’s community liaison manager. “The alarming thing is that at no time were we advised of this need by the supplier.”

So with the legal requirements sorted, how do retailers select the wines for tasting? Jo says she gives suppliers a theme, such as ‘summery’, and she’ll then go with their recommendations. Donna also gets her ideas from suppliers and offers a mix of discounted promos, wines between £10 and £20, and a few £40 bottles.

Londis Ascot retailer Roli Ranger, who was crowned Off Licence Retailer of the year at the 2013 Convenience Retail Awards, recently held his first wine-tasting event because he wanted to highlight his extensive range to customers. “To select the wines I looked at good sellers which weren’t brand leaders, and I chose a couple of bottles from the wholesaler which I hadn’t stocked before. It was pot luck really!”

Andy always opts for something unusual. “We chose the New Zealand wine because it was different and we just said ‘let’s see what happens’,” he reveals.

Call the Winebulance

Andy bought his store in January, but 75 people attended his first wine-tasting event last month, compared with 30 people under the previous owner last year. “There are two reasons for this,” he says. “First, because we promote ourselves on social media and second, because we’re becoming well-known for having a different range of wine.”

And the main reason Andy’s store is gaining such a glowing local reputation is his unique wine delivery service. Since launching the ‘Winebulance’ in March, wine sales have grown by 30% and the number of daily deliveries has increased from four or five a week to four or five a day. “The idea was to increase the presence of the shop on the high street, increase the number of deliveries and increase footfall to the shop,” he says.

Andy distributes Winebulance menus in the format of an Indian takeaway, encouraging shoppers to keep it on hand. “Customers also know we don’t stick to what’s on the menu. A lot of people will trust us to make a decision for them, or ask for recommendations,” he says.

The Winebulance isn’t just about increasing wine sales, either - it’s about surviving long-term on the high street. “Just after we launched the Winebulance we watched Mary Portas’ documentary about the high street and she said you need home delivery and a recognised brand to survive,” he says. “Winebulance works for us because it’s a rural and ageing population here a lot of people don’t want to carry wine. It’s also not an easy place to stop in terms of accessible parking.”

But if Winebulances and wine-tasting events are a step too far, there are other simple yet effective ways to boost wine sales. First, check you’re stocking the right wines for your shoppers. Donna has three simple tips: “Make sure you read the trade press and know what people are buying have a core range and stock what competitors don’t sell.”

Andy stocks wine which reflects his customers’ interests. “Our top seller is called Dog Walk, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend from South Africa (£8.95). I introduced the label because we’re next to a pet shop and there are lots of dog owners who come in. We also sell a range called Miss Molly, which has pictures of dogs on it,” he says. If these wines sound a bit, well, fluffy, Andy is ruthless about stocking the right range. “I don’t get emotionally attached to the wines that can be a failure. When we bought the shop there were a number of wines which just weren’t selling so I ditched them,” he adds.

Providing customers with advice and pointers is a cheap and easy way to drive wine sales. “Our list of top-selling wine is a great info provider for people who aren’t so wine savvy,” says Roli. Similarly, Donna prints a list of food and wine combinations in her store.

However, retailers and their staff need to be prepared to pass on such recommendations if their customers ask them. Andy advocates gaining knowledge from food and wine pairing websites, one of which is Accolade Wines’ But he insists that there’s no need to complicate things. “If people ask what’s good with fish, we’ll recommend white wine. Sometimes people ask what’s good with fish and chips. Well, actually, Champagne! And if someone’s ordered an Indian or Chinese we’ll say it doesn’t matter what you buy as you won’t taste it anyway.”

Roli uses ‘Great with’ shelf-markers - such as ‘Great with sausages’ or ‘Great with lamb’ - to help customers choose wine to go with their meals.

Andy also has a wine sampling machine in store to enable customers to taste the product before purchasing which he says is great for shifting slow sellers.

Roli has a simpler method to get lines moving: flashmarking. “It’s amazing what happens if you put a label on something,.” he points out. The stickers give the impression that the wine is on promotion, even though it isn’t. If a bottle is priced at £9.65, he rounds the price up to £10, but he will round down a £9.25 bottle to £9.

So premium wine shoppers are out there - it’s just about attracting them to your store and helping them along once they get there. ■

Value for money

wine tax

Educating customers about the relative value of decent wine is crucial, says Andy Short. “We’re very careful with the message. We’re not saying don’t buy a bottle of wine for less than a fiver - we’re saying beware of the so-called deals,” he explains. “It’s about education. When customers come in and say they don’t want to spend more than a fiver because it’s a lot of money, we’ll say the cheap ones are cheap, but there’s no wine - it’s all tax.”

Indeed, Treasury Wine Estates senior category and insights manager Nicola Frinneby-Wake highlights the impact duty is having on low-end wines. “Over half of a bottle of £5 wine is tax and duty, which decreases to just over a third for a £10 bottle,” she says. To illustrate this point, Andy distributes flyers (below) in store to keep his customers informed.