Linking up key to indie success

09 July, 2010

Norte Chico is a Chilean wine brand you’ll find on sale in wine merchant George Hill of Loughborough, but nowhere else in the vicinity. It’s an exclusive label that gives owner Andrew Hill an important point of difference.

The same wine is also on sale in Corks Out in Cheshire, Connolly’s in Birmingham, ND John in Swansea and Sandhams in Lincolnshire, to name but four. That’s because the brand was created for the Rolleston wine-buying group, an alliance of some 27 merchants spread across the country, who have recognised the advantages of pooling resources.

It’s not the wine-buying group with the biggest turnover. That honour belongs to either the Merchant Vintners (which includes names such as Tanners, Adnams and Townend) or the Society of Vintners (once known as the National Wine Buying Group), whose members are mainly wholesalers.

As the independent sector enjoys a boom, more alliances are emerging. As well as making it more feasible to develop exclusive brands, these groups give retailers access to bulk discounts and provide the professional camaraderie independent traders often miss out on.

Rolleston was started by the late Martin Sneath of St Martin Vintners in Brighton. According to Hill, there are “big guys, small guys and medium-sized guys” among the members, who share a number of brands, including Norte Chico (Chile), Millbrook (South Africa) and Williams Well (Australia).

“We buy from different suppliers and deal with smaller producers and volumes. One of our founder members, Laurie Scott, who used to run Corkscrew Wines in Carlisle, is now our mentor and does all the running around, making sure things are being sorted and shipments are on time,” he says.

“We insist our suppliers have stock in the UK. We can buy direct from suppliers and they invoice us direct. The whole thing is very flexible. The smaller people who don’t want big stocks of a particular wine can still support the group. It seems to be working very well.

“When we get together for quarterly meetings, you realise you’re not alone, people are having the same problems as you.”?Individual Merchant Vintners members take buying responsibility for certain countries or regions, but at Rolleston the structure is less formalised. “A group of us are going to Italy in late July and we’re looking at Pinot Grigio,” Hill says.

Rory Stapleton is the owner of the Jolly Vintner in Tiverton, Devon. Five years ago he established a loose grouping of independents which negotiate discounts that would otherwise elude.

The group includes fellow Devon merchants Cornhill Wines and Topsham Wines, as well as the Jolly Vintner Too in Bournemouth – which, despite its name, has no financial connection with Stapleton’s shop.

“We’re far enough apart to not tread on each other’s toes, but close enough to make it an easy round trip to one of our warehouses,” says Stapleton. “It’s just an informal alliance. We get together probably seven or eight times a year with a couple of suppliers.

“We have a lunch and a tasting. UK importers bring in a selection of wine. It tends to be mainly from France but we have done a lot from Chile and a little bit in the past from New Zealand.”?By working together, merchants save between 7% and 10% on their orders, which typically involve a 75-case minimum, and suppliers take a “sensible” approach to the accounting formalities. “We get invoiced separately for what we’ve ordered, although one or two still can’t seem to get their heads around that idea,” says Stapleton.

He says the buying group, which has no particular name, would not have been possible in the past.

“I used to work for Hallgarten before I had my shop. I knew all the people in the West Country from calling on them. When I said ‘why don’t we get together?’ people replied ‘I don’t want anyone knowing what I’m doing’. But that generation has died out and a younger generation has come through which is prepared to work together. I imagine we could bring in more people if we wanted to but the logistics would be more complicated.”?Recently another grouping of specialist wine merchants, known as the Vindependents, has been established. The plan is for retailers to work together to promote the highest standards in wine retailing and to share information and expertise. Members include Define, Noel Young Wines, Amps Fine Wines and Woodwinters.

Collective buying was not the first item on the Vindependents’ agenda, which suits Amps just fine. “The problem with buying groups is the person who does the buying really likes the wine, but if no one buys it they’re lumbered with it,” says owner Philip Amps. “The beauty of independents is you are doing something someone else doesn’t do, so if you all have the same offering you lose that.”?Amps also questions the financial benefits of joint orders. “There are fractions in savings but you’ve still got to collect from bond, and there are other costs involved, so I’m not sure how worthwhile it is,” he says. “You lose a certain amount of flexibility. Being in a buying group has never really appealed to me,” he says.

Many merchants will agree, and don’t wish to surrender even the tiniest scrap of their independence. But for others, faced with intensifying competition from retailers who enjoy the kind of buying power they can only dream of, there may be safety in numbers.

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