Richard Hemming: Taking stock of UK wine retail

My 12-times table is ninja fast. Not just up to 10, either – that’s kid’s stuff. I’m talking dozens of dozens, hundreds even. I’ve even got favourites: 38 times 12 is 456 – pleasingly sequential; 50 times 12 is 600 – an easy one, but with satisfying roundness. Then there’s the evergreen classic 74 times 12, giving not just two but three fat ladies, 888.

As dinner party tricks go, this is one of the less impressive ones, granted. But it comes into its own when stocktaking a wine shop. In my retailing days, I garnered almost perverse satisfaction from counting cases of wine stacked high on pallets. It was less fun when you realised you were missing a few cases of grand marque Champagne, but let’s not go into that.

Every autumn, a similar sense of satisfaction can be got by tasting all the latest offerings from the UK’s wine retailers. It affords a great opportunity to take stock of the general picture and consider our sector’s prospects.

Supermarkets still seem in a state of flux, with the big names still adapting to the competition from the discounters. One trend that’s apparently on the rise is own-label brands, generally sourced from producers large enough to service the required volumes. That may spell bad news for smaller producers and importers, who are facing delistings. On the other hand, it should give other off-licences the chance to champion these wines as a distinct point of difference to multiple grocers.

Majestic and Oddbins, those stalwart gauges of national wine specialists, are ploughing different furrows. The former is gradually changing its strategy, with the aim of making itself more accessible: dropping the minimum purchase and refreshing in-store appearance, with more changes surely to come from the new management team. It has also introduced a premium own-brand range.

Meanwhile, Oddbins is sticking to its guns: transparent pricing, no multibuys, with clever sourcing from the likes of Romania and Spain to offer value and a good selection of wine from around the world, representing the classics and offering more obscure choices for the trainspotters.

Independent merchants still appear to be healthy and diverse, with tasting events such as the Dirty Dozen and The Bunch showcasing every conceivable style of wine from retailers with their own distinct personality and approach – this sense of spirit is a key part of the indie proposition.

From the sound of things, there is every reason to be positive about the state of wine retail – but there is a less optimistic angle. The most recent Wine & Spirit Trade Association figures show that wine sales are down 6% by volume since 2010. Coupled with our notorious reputation for low prices and high taxes, we should never be complacent about how suppliers view the UK.

Britain is one of the very best places in the world to buy wine, as witness the incredible diversity on offer at trade tastings. Keeping it that way means taking regular stock of how we work, and responding dynamically to the challenges.

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