Minding the Shop: Admirable Nelson's way

15 June, 2007

One south London off-licence makes all the right moves when it comes to predicting trends. By Laura Clark

With an impressive selection of more than 500 beers from across the globe, Nelson Wines is a haven for alcohol geeks. Proudly labelling itself London's leading retailer of bottled beers, this South Wimbledon off-licence sports a double-sided, floor-to-ceiling shelf running down the centre of the shop .

Step through the door a nd you're confronted with a wall of traditional English ales, some rare British bottle-conditioned beers and a huge Belgian selection. On the blind side of the shelf are brews from the rest of the world.

Owner Tom McTague joined the store as manager in 1985 and bought the freehold nine years later for £60,000. With the mortgage paid off and the off-licence and living space above now valued at £450,000, Nelson Wines has been a lucrative investment for this passionate independent drinks retail er.

Why did you buy Nelson Wines?

My career in the wine trade started in 1971 when I worked as a store manager for Unwins. I also worked for Augustus Barnett - the forerunner of the no-frills, cut-price off-licence. I've always wanted to live near my work and you can't get much better than walking up the stairs at the end of a shift. If I wanted less of a commute I would have to move into the stock room .

How do you decide what to stock?

I think of myself as a specialist that stocks a wide range of everything. If I see something new and think it will sell, I try experimenting . A few years ago it was easier selling new products to customers - people now seem to stick to what they know. Along with the beer I also have a big selection of wine, spirits, traditional ciders and 50 different rums.

I use Pierhead Purchasing for my international beer selection, Beer Paradise is great for British beers and I use Belgian Beer Importers, wh ich is excellent. Customers give me hints about what they want to try . At the moment chilli beer is a curiosity . I wouldn't drink it myself but customers seem to like it. Desperados tequila flavoured beer is another quirky drink that's selling well.

What are the main trends you're seeing in beer sales?

People are going for British beer in the bottle and there's a big drift away from canned beer. There's so much more choice in premium beer and people are happy to pay a premium price. Canned beer has gone downmarket - people prefer to be seen drinking from a bottle. I personally wouldn't drink a can of beer now. When I first started we sold very little bottled beer, now it's the exact opposite.

Recent figures show that cider has overtaken ale in the off-trade for the first time and that RTDs are the worst-performing category in the top 10. Is this reflected in your sales?

Definitely. Magners has given cider a great boost. In the early days of the shop we had a greater selection of RTDs . I remember when I first read about Hooch in OLN, so I thought I would try a case and I sold it all in the first night. There was such a demand for it and now this has completely gone. Five years ago I revamped the shop and increased my selection of British beers significantly because of growing demand.

What trends are you seeing in spirits?

I've got 50 different rums from Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Kenya and Australia. Golden rum is the most popular and white the least, maybe because it has less flavour. It's the same with tequila - people choose the gold , it's a fad at the moment. There's a trend for cachaça from Brazil and premium vodka brands such as Grey Goose and Bis on Grass are incredibly popular. I also have 50 malt whisk ies .

How do you attract new customers?

I get a lot of passing trade. Often customers will come in and tell me they walk past every day and have decided to come and see what I sell. People say I should go on the internet to advertise the shop. At the moment I'm only featured on sites where people have reviewed me. Customers find me that way and when people recommend you it's a very positive thing.

It's also important to help the punters choos e because it can be a bit daunting being confronted with so many beers. They want to buy something but they don't know where to start, so you have to recommend stuff and then people will come back to try more .

Why did you decide to not open during the day on weekdays

There's not a lot of foot traffic in the area during the day, maybe because the shop is close to South Wimbledon tube and a lot of commuters liv e in the area.

Do you run offers or promotions?

I offer a 7.5 per cent discount on three bottles of wine, 15 per cent o n six bottles and 20 per cent o n 12. Customers like getting something free. I used to advertise the discounts on sandwich boards outside which was quite effective, but gusts of wind kept blowing them down. I do discounts on bottled beer, such as 10 per cent off 12 bottles - people expect that.

How have sales in general been over the past year?

I hate being pessimistic, but if current sales trends continue it's not going in a very positive way. Sales have declined, but because I am established my overheads are not as big as some people 's so I can continue trading.

What's the biggest challenge for an independent?

Competition. In this area I am the only specialist off-licence, but the number of convenience stores selling alcohol ha s grown dramatically and I also have to compete with the big boy down the road. Sainsbury's ha s quite a good range and has really expanded it . It's got more niche stuff, which can really affect us. And it does tricky things like selling smaller bottle sizes so the price looks good. It's a hard battle.

Perennial top sellers

De Dolle Brouwers Stille Nachte (12 per cent abv) £2.49

Leffe 9° (9 per cent) £1.99

De Graal Gember spiced beer (8 per cent) £1.99

Floris Framboise (3.5 per cent) £1.79

Mongozo Banana (4.5 per cent) £1.79

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