Wheeler dealer keeps costs low

Jonathan Sing prides himself on his low prices. Christine Boggis finds out how he manages his bargains

While many independent wine merchants pride themselves on being able to take good margins because they offer customers something they can't get elsewhere, Jonathan Sing takes a very different approach


Wine World in Honiton, Devon. Margins are as tight as they can be - depending on what the wine cost Sing, not how much it is considered to be worth or how much customers might be prepared to pay for it - and because he offers quality wines at unbeatable prices he manages to shift huge volumes.

He has been running the shop for 16 years, originally as a partner of the previous owner and later as owner himself, and came to it from a background of working for John Lewis and working vintages in Alsace and the Rheingau.

How does your business work?

The secret to the business here is keeping low margins. I have always worked on a much lower margin than most independents will work on - an accountant will tell a wine merchant starting up, you have got to work on 35% margin, and I work on 18-20% gross profit margin.

Because of that I have

to do a vast turnover, but if you are in a small market town and you have half a dozen major supermarkets around you,

you have to be more than just competitive, and that is the secret.

If you have a vast amount of competition , you have to be very competitive on price - it is one way of beating the system. It is one way that very few independents seem to put on their priority list. I have made a healthy living out of fairly low margins but big turnover. This tiny shop [about 300sq ft selling area] will sell well in excess of

£1 million a year.

How do you keep margins low?

We don't sell any alcopop stuff, we don't sell cigarettes, we don't sell any cheap beer or cider - just

wine and a few weird and wonderful spirits and regional beers.

If we do any brand stuff

it has to be an end of line job or something that is overstocked, then we will go out at a considerably better price than supermarkets.

We do very little wholesale, and even

when we do people come and collect

from us. We don't advertise, everything is designed to keep the

bottle price as

low as possible. If you can get the best possible wine out at the best possible price people will travel a

long way to get to you.

For storage we rent space in a warehouse

about quarter of a mile away .

We don't have a computer, and all the prices are kept in the head - but we spend more time correcting people's computer-generated price invoices than anything else because nobody checks their pricing - once it's

in the computer, that's it.

Where do you source your wines?

About 50 different suppliers. We buy direct from vineyards as well. We deal with several receivership companies

- they

send samples of wines, we taste them and make offers . Loyalty is unfortunately a word that is consigned to the dustbin these days, but if someone comes up with the right deal

we will buy five or six pallets of one wine - which is unusual for an independent to be able to do - and

we get it at the best price

and sell it. We can get through a pallet of wine in a day if it is at the right price.

What are your customers like?

It is a really wide spectrum: early retired, live in one of the satellite villages, interested in food and fairly professional in their outlook.

We get little old ladies who come in and go out with bottles of vintage port, we get colonels and we get builders who are really interested in tasting wine at not too high a price.

You have also worked in the vineyards . Have you sold wines you had a hand in making?

At Hugel in Alsace I did the '83 harvest, which was the best probably since '76 - and that's 1876. It was a pretty splendid vintage. It was my job to get up at three in the morning, get a wooden spatula paddle and beat the hell out of the crust on the Pinot Noir. That was great fun.

When I came here one of the first things that happened was that Keith Floyd 's establishment near Totnes went into receivership. The receivers phoned me about his wine and I put in a bid for a couple of thousand pounds, which I thought was a ridiculous price. A pub down the road

put in a bid for his business, but they didn't want the wine, so it was mine.

I found

a lot of '83 Pinot Noir from Hugel, the

Selection de Grains Nobles Vendanges Tardives at £80-£90 a bottle, so I sat down and had a bottle of that.

I had 45 cases, and I got my money back after selling just two cases, so the other 43 were a bonus. I did a limit of six bottles per person and sold them to locals at under auction price . I could have sent the whole lot to auction, but it got me the publicity I needed locally and the place took off after that.

Where did you learn your deal-making skills?

I think I was probably born with them. Part of it is an inbuilt competitiveness, and also a kind of realism. When I taste a wine I ask myself what I would be prepared to pay for it? And then I expect to sell it for £1 less.