Millar's Tale: Testing times

On Monday, March 23, independent merchants across the country faced an uncertain future.

For many who found themselves not classified as essential in the first version of the government’s lockdown guidelines issued on Tuesday 24, the only responsible thing to do was to fulfil what orders they could, close their doors and place their staff on furlough, hoping their customers would still remember them after at least three weeks of buying their wines elsewhere.

Despite being added to the list of essential retailers just a day later, it has not been easy. Business models have had to adapt quickly and without the luxury of time and testing. Communications have been frenetic and sometimes unavoidably contradictory.

Planning has been restricted to the most limited kind, particularly in late March. Hours have been tough, and staffing has been uncertain. Anxiety has been as much a feature of business life as personal life.

Yet deprived of the usual tastings, events and wholesale opportunities, retail – never the most glamorous sector of the wine trade – has come to the rescue for many, providing a solid base of sales in uncertain times.

Those with an eye on the future have been able to capitalise on partnerships with modern, flexible delivery services and apps such as Deliveroo to get drinks to customers in record time.

Despite the view among some of the consulterati that the wine trade is a fuddy-duddy old place resistant to new trends,
other innovations, such as Zoom tastings, are quickly being explored, largely and correctly in response to genuine customer demand rather than chasing trends for the sake of it.

But those who had somehow failed to get the memo about just-in-time supply chains found themselves in a providential position. Suddenly, a business model that had seemed hopelessly predicated on having a building full of stock was very fashionable indeed, whether that stock was toilet roll or Malbec.

In these early days in particular, the independent sector was often able to do what the supermarkets and nationwide retailers could not: get wine, beer and spirits to consumers, often in the space of a day or two. It has brought thousands of thirsty new customers from the supermarket aisles to the independent sector. Many are already repeat customers and on first-name terms with the staff in their local merchant.

The challenge now will be whether merchants can hold on to these customers in the new normal. Given that the recent review of the lockdown restrictions was much more cautious than many might have hoped, it looks like this unusual pattern of trading will continue for some time, with many likely to be working from home until July.

When it ends, will customers remember that it was their local independent merchant who was able to supply them when the multiples could not? Is this a chance to prove that service can mean more than just cut-and-paste tasting notes or a marketing-led website?

Independent retailers have, in undesirable circumstances, been presented with an opportunity to show what they can do, while the field has been cleared of their traditional rivals.

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