Revelling in a new era

10 December, 2010

Nine months after leaving his role as head of BWS at Waitrose to become Direct Wines’ global wine director, Justin Howard-Sneyd MW is revelling in the new world the online, mail order and retail business has opened up for him.

As head of the company’s buying team he is travelling the world to visit its suppliers and collaborate with them on winemaking. He is responsible for how the range is merchandised in mail order and, to a certain extent, in Laithwaites’ shops. He is building up international markets in countries such as Australia, Hong Kong, Holland and Germany as well as handling PR.

It’s certainly a contrast to the 12 years he spent as a buyer for Safeway, Sainsbury’s and then Waitrose.

He says: “It involves quite a lot of travelling, but it is all good fun and it is not so much negotiating with men in suits from branded wine companies but getting great wines created and then enthusing about them to those tasked with selling them.

“One of the real differences at Laith­waites compared with other places I’ve worked in is it is a very warm, friendly company. Wine suppliers are often old friends of the business who have been supplying us for a long time, and we have a very friendly relationship on a very human level. It is quite a different ambience from a large supermarket.

“There is an Italian word – ‘simpatico’ – which means a warmth and friendliness, which you don’t see everywhere nowadays.”?But aren’t there things Direct Wines can learn from the supermarkets? “A few, certainly,” Howard-Sneyd admits, though he stresses he would never apply things he has learned elsewhere to a different business until he has fully understood it. “There are definitely some things we weren’t doing enough of that were doing well in supermarkets – particularly New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Prosecco and rosé.”??Cultivating relationships?He says there are other areas where Laithwaites does better than supermarkets thanks to the relationships its sales people have been able to build up with key customers over the years.

“We have this customer base who interact with us through people they talk to on the phone. Sometimes they invite them to weddings and send them Christmas cards. We have got 100 people whose job is to cultivate relationships with their best customers and they do extremely well with that – it’s that kind of warm personal relationship and one-to-one discussion you can still have in small independent wine shops where the staff don’t change much. But it’s very hard to replicate that in a supermarket environment.

“We do that very well, and as a result our customers will trust us if we say ‘you really should try Portuguese wine’, without the preconceptions they would have in supermarkets. Portugal, France and Argentina really perform.”?Although Howard-Sneyd denies any particular shift in emphasis, Laithwaites is gradually moving away from direct competition with the supermarkets on prices and promotions.

“We recognised a different remit between someone who puts a couple of bottles in a trolley when shopping, which is very low involvement, and the people who shop with us, who do so because they want a deeper and more interesting experience,” he explains.

“We try to be really good at that. We are never going to be the cheapest seller of branded wine in the market. But what we do well is create exciting wines then sell them competitively, capture people’s imaginations and keep them coming back for more.

“People who shop with us on a regular basis are incredibly loyal and happy about their relationship with us. We want to do that with a wider group of people – we don’t want to target people who just want to come and buy the cheapest bottle they can find.”??First-hand experience?So how does owning his own vineyard, Domaine of the Bee in Maury, in the south of France, help him in his role??“We have our own vineyards and have now turned those into our own wines using Richard Case, who does everything for us including marketing and selling it in the UK.

“The first year was 2007 and we are now on to 2008,” Howard-Sneyd says.

“It is really good fun – hard work but it has really taught me about the whole grape to glass process and also the marketing and selling it on to customers and starting a website.

“Doing it first hand is really quite an education. All of that serves to colour my day job. It all seems to act as a virtuous circle. By doing that kind of work I get to understand the production and connect much better, and by being seen to be doing it, fellow wine­makers will feel I understand and have a sympathy for it.

“The whole team here at Direct Wines has got much more involved in the production side. We go out and do business in the way others used to 10 or 20 years ago, but perhaps don’t bother to anymore. We still get involved with creating and making most of our wines, and that is really stimulating and also means I can negotiate more on quality than on price. When I talk to winemakers about how good they can make it for the price, it is often surprising.”?So can it really be as good as all that? “I have been having a fantastic time,” he says. “I’m thoroughly enjoying the diversity and interest of quite a different job after being in supermarkets for 12 years.

“They were fairly similar jobs, although with different environments and customer bases. But then to move to a specialist wine company rather than a supermarket is probably the key reason why I’m really revelling in it,” he says.

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