Hay Wines, Ledbury, Herefordshire

Jane Salt and husband Chris have just celebrated 10 years running their wine business, based in Ledbury, Herefordshire. The company started in 2009 as a wholesale business but it soon expanded to include a shop and events, as Jane explains:

How did you get started?

We were approached by a friend who had a wholesale-only wine company as he wanted to see if we would invest in the business. It was struggling to stay afloat so we declined the offer. We were not in the wine trade at the time (I was in pharmaceuticals), but we had been looking for our own business to run.

Some time later his wholesale operation went bust so we started a wine company off the back of that. We started with the wholesale business but we were looking to find a retail outlet as soon as we could.

Thresher went bust around that time and we were able to secure one of its old outlets in Ledbury, slightly away from Hay-on-Wye, where the company started. Ledbury is a busier market town and nearer to our home, and it is less reliant on seasonal footfall. It is busy year- round and we felt it was generally a better location for a store.

What is the location like?

It’s a small market town and it is a tourist destination, so we get a lot of people passing through the area. There are a lot of independent shops here and not many chain stores, apart from a Boots and a Spar. We have a Co-op, Tesco and Aldi fairly near to us.

We have an organic food shop near us and that brings a lot of people in.

There are other independent wine shops in the area, such as Tanners, and there are Majestic stores and Waitrose.

We are starting to see a lot of new customers coming in because housing is being built in the area. A lot of people are moving here from London and the south east, because it is fairly easy to commute to London, Birmingham and Bristol and property is cheaper.

How has the business evolved over the years?

We were lucky to take on an ex- Thresher store so it didn’t need a lot doing to it and we haven’t had to make any major changes over the years.

We have four arms to the business now: wholesale, online, events and the retail outlet. My husband and daughter run the events side and that is growing a lot. We were really busy with it last year as they attended lots of food festivals around the country. Basically they have a stand and it mostly sells liqueurs because we have a really interesting range of these and they are mostly exclusive to us. We have some of the more unusual ones and we get a lot of repeat business for these.

We don’t have many events in the first three months of the year but then from Easter onwards it is really busy and I think in 2019 they attended 89 shows.

We have tried taking wine to these but it is more competitive and a lot of effort, even though the margins are better. You have to take glasses for tasting and people don’t want to buy a case of wine to carry around, but they are happy to buy an interesting liqueur, especially for gifts.

What sells well in your store?

France has always been our biggest seller in wine. Italy is a very close second. We have a full-time sommelier who is Italian so we have quite a few unusual Italian wines which are direct imports.

We specialise in Prosecco, and we have a big range of premium tier ones and exclusives that we import directly. There is a growing trend for vegan, organic and natural wines and our sommelier is a big advocate of these, so we have an interesting natural range, including a sparkling orange wine.

We have more than 800 wines, 100 gins and 140 whiskies. We have local beers and ciders and a significant number of liqueurs.

Gin is still very good for us and we have a good range, including exclusive gin liqueurs. I think it will start to slow down soon though. We have 100 or so gins but I won’t be expanding the range. If anything I might drop the ones that don’t move fast. Local ones are popular.

In the last year we took on someone to drive the wholesale side and now that is much more proactive. Retail is good and it is a big part of the business but sales are probably flat compared with last year, following year-on-year growth for a long time. It is difficult on the high street and Brexit hasn’t helped. The business overall is about 10% up but this has mostly been driven by events, the website and wholesale.

What else do you do to keep customers coming back?

Our sommelier does a lot of the social media for the store, so we communicate with our customers via Linkedin, Instagram and Twitter.

We do monthly tastings and usually get around 30 customers at these. We also do whisky tastings and ones for gin, or cheese with wine.

These events are very popular and our aim is to get customers to move out of their comfort zones and try new things.

Have you got any plans for the future?

We like to try new things. Younger people are not buying wine so much so we trialled some 50cl crown cap wines from one of our suppliers. They seem to divide the audience – some didn’t like the format while others thought they were ideal for parties and outdoor occasions.

We have seen good sales of the alcohol-free spirit Seedlip, so we might add a few more drinks like this.

We have long thought about opening another store but it’s about finding the right town. We will be actively looking for a second store this year. We have the right model now so it’s just about the location, and making sure it doesn’t have too much competition.

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