Retailers hold up in face of coronavirus

Three in five UK drinks retailers fear their businesses will be materially impacted by consumers staying indoors due to coronavirus fears.

Social distancing has become the buzz phrase du jour as governments around the world encourage people to work from home and avoid large gatherings. Handshakes and double cheek kisses are out. Hand sanitisers and face masks are now in. Shelves have been stripped of toilet paper.

Almost every industry has been battered, and the drinks trade is no different. Major events such as Prowein, Vinitaly and the Raw Wine Fair in London have been cancelled or postponed as authorities scramble to contain the virus. Covid-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, but it has since spread to almost every country in the world. There have been more than 110,000 cases globally and the death toll has now exceeded 4,000.

The number of UK cases continues to spiral, causing people to spend much more time at home. A household survey by Retail

Economics found that 15% of Brits are avoiding public transport, while 23% are avoiding contact with other people. A quarter of British retailers have also reported supply chain disruptions.

We polled hundreds of drinks retailers this week to gauge the effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Sixty per cent said they are braced for a negative impact on sales. “One of our shops sees a lot of business from tourists, which we are expecting to reduce,” says Theo Sloot at Oxford Wine Co. “Then there is the knock-on effect to our wholesale business from people being less inclined to go to restaurants.”

Clive Stanton at Eton Vintners in Windsor says the streets are empty, while David Perry at Shaftesbury Wines says he fears a lockdown.

“This could be seriously catastrophic for retail if there’s a lockdown,” says Erik Laan at The Vineking in Surrey.

Half of the retailers we surveyed said they would ramp up their focus on ecommerce and home deliveries as a result of the virus. “We hope people will take advantage of home delivery, sit at home with a good bottle of wine and wait it all out,” says Adam Vincent at Dike & Son in Stalbridge, Dorset.

Andrew Lundy, managing director of Vino in Edinburgh, says: “With fewer people on the premises and home delivery this should be better for business.”

Jonathan Williamson at Wines of Interest in Ipswich says: “If people panic they will avoid places where customers gather. Pubs, restaurants etc may all feel the draught. We’ll do whatever we can to continue to offer quality wines and service. If the answer turns out to be ecommerce, so be it.”

ASSESSING THE SITUATION

Matthew Hennings, of Hennings Wine in West Sussex, says an impact on business is a distinct possibility. “We will assess the situation and make sure we make it as easy as possible for our customers to deal with us,” he says.

Kelvyn and Ruth Guest, of Guest Wines in North Shields, are in the process of setting up a new website. “While this has not been done because of the virus, it may become an important feature if the situation with the virus worsens,” they say.

But Rupert Pritchett at Taurus Wines in Surrey warns: “I suspect couriers will have as many issues as we do. Our vans will be delivering though, even if the staff have to wear hazmat suits.” Another issue for buyers is sourcing interesting wines, spirits and beers when major tastings and fairs are being scrapped and international travel is difficult. So far 23.7% of UK drinks retailers say the coronavirus outbreak has impacted their ability to source exciting drinks. A further 44.6% say they fear it will eventually have an impact on their drinks buying.

“We tend to attend more niche wine fairs and that may impact on our ability to source new wines,” says Louise Wishart at Ellis Wines. “We will have to research and request samples if unable to travel.”

The team at Ake & Humphris in Yorkshire has cancelled a buying trip to Italy over coronavirus- related travel restrictions. That is a common theme among wine buyers. “I will minimise business travel abroad to avoid possible contact with coronavirus,” says Tariq Mahmood at Wine Raks in Aberdeen.

We asked retailers for their strategies when it comes to sourcing interesting wines, spirits and beers amid travel restrictions. Many said they will request more samples, while Skype meetings are becoming increasingly prevalent and a greater reliance on importers and agencies seems inevitable.

Sloot at Oxford Wine Co says: “I have already conducted six of the many meetings I had arranged for Prowein this year over email and by requesting sample stock to be sent to the UK.”

Williamson at Wines of Interest says: “We have a great network of suppliers in the UK and travel little because of this.” Nish Kotecha at Manchester- based importer Myliko Wines says: “More tastings in house for sure, yet more emails and virtual meetings – not ideal.” Tim Johnson at The Grape Variety in Chipstead, Surrey, believes Skype meetings should be used more anyway.

“I will, for the time being, completely rely on importers,” says Liam Burke at Vintner & Mason in Waltham Abbey. Lundy at Vino says: “We made a strategic choice with Brexit to use agencies so this shouldn’t affect us any more than anyone else.” He also advocates selling cheap vodka as a more cost- effective hand sanitiser.

“Getting samples is obviously the main way of combatting this issue,” says Andrew Johnson at Scottish retailer Woodwinters.

Wholesalers are developing increasingly innovative and environmentally friendly packaging to send out samples, so they can fit through letterboxes with ease. Producers and suppliers are using Skype and other apps to conduct virtual tastings that were scheduled to take place at events such as Prowein.

Portuguese producers are taking part in a virtual trade event on March 16-17, during which they will present the wines they planned to pour at Prowein. Organised by online wine retailer Adegga, the event will consist of a series of interviews with dozens of wine producers, hosted by Andre Ribeirinho as a Portuguese wine correspondent, and it will also include some guest speakers. UK retailers can stream the event to learn more about the wines.

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