Millar's Tale: A Question of Cake

As a child I could never really understand the saying: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Of course you can. In fact, the only way you can eat cake is to have it in the first place. It wasn’t until I came across the older version of the phrase – “to eat your cake and still have it” (as widely used in 16th-century England) – that it suddenly made sense to me, at an embarrassingly advanced age.

It turns out many languages have a form of this saying: you can’t swim and not get wet in Albania; you can’t feed the goat and keep the cabbage in Hungary; and you can’t feed the wolf and keep the lamb in Bulgaria. But it was our native version that popped into my head recently when I came across a favourite wine listing in an unexpected place.

All independents will know the feeling of surprise when they discover one of their listings on the site of a multiple or supermarket, at a lower price than they can offer, and with a juicy multibuy discount on it to sweeten the deal. In this case, their price in the sale was my cost price, so it was clear they were buying the same thing for substantially less.

Indie buyers have become so inured to this happening that the process for dealing with it is routine: contact the supplier, point out the issue, receive the apology, apply a new cost price if you’re lucky or (more often) discontinue the product. You just unfold the trusty “distribution disaster” flow chart.

But this kind of behaviour is dispiritingly common and shows just how lacking in strategy many producers are when it comes to the distribution of their product in the UK market, and the building of its long-term value.

IMMEDIATE SALE

Faced with wines of different quality and price levels, export managers are often tempted to dump large quantities of stock of a single wine outside of the core market for the sake of an immediate sale and a foot in the door. As long as this sale is done at the same price as they are selling to independent retailers, I doubt few of us really mind, since we’re happy to compete. But when the cost price drops dramatically as part of the deal, then the playing field is no longer level. It makes the retailers who have worked to build up the value and exposure of the winery’s brand look overpriced and uncompetitive, with little option but to delist something they have worked hard to promote and develop.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask for a degree of loyalty and strategic planning from wineries. In the end, we’re all trying to build something with integrity and sustainability and having good partners that you trust is crucial to that, at both ends of the market. Unfortunately, independents don’t have much control over this. Our section of the industry is fragmented and dispersed and can be overlooked, although the past year has affirmed that we have a significant value to the market.

There’s no better evidence of that than the fact that, after several years have passed and the initial glamour of the big deal has worn off, or they’ve been ruthlessly beaten down on price, or simply cut from the range, we often find the same wineries returning to the independent sector like nothing happened, keen to reactivate their old listings. At that point, I suggest that they keep their cake.

By Jason Millar, Theatre of Wine

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