Beer shops under lockdown: Favourite Beers, Cheltenham

Leigh Norwood opened Favourite Beers in 2010 and at the time it was the only specialist beer and cider venue in Gloucestershire. In this latest feature in this series of interviews with beer shops across the UK, Norwood talks to DRN about how the business is operating and adapting during the pandemic:

* Can you give me an idea of how your business is currently operating?

We actually decided to close just before the Government Lockdown was announced, mainly due to the fact that we are a small family business with just myself and my daughter working at the shop, and as I am in one of the groups that was advised to self-isolate, it wasn’t sensible to leave my daughter at risk and running the shop on her own.

Prior to closing we had been offering a home delivery service to anybody that had already been advised to self-isolate (those with symptoms etc.), so when we shut the doors it seemed natural to just extend to a limited, two days a week (Tuesdays and Fridays), delivery system.

We don’t have an online shop anymore so rather than go through all the palaver of setting one up, I decided to offer a ‘curated’ service to our customers. With this, they specify how much they want to spend and what sorts of beers/ciders they would like by detailing styles, strengths, countries, favourite breweries etc. - we then fulfil each order to the best of our abilities with the stock we have available at the time.

This works for us because over the last nine and a half years we have built a great level of trust with our customers (who are amazing) when it comes to advice over beers and new breweries to try etc. – I have always been very fussy about the quality of the products we stock, and we have always provided detailed tasting notes for our beers. This attention to detail means that customers are happy for us to do the selecting for them.

This has had benefits both ways, we have been able to run down the number of lines we stock to make everything easier to control and have managed to use up the vast amount of stock we always held in our cellar fairly quickly. Our customers on the other hand get to taste some great beers that they possibly would not have normally selected – some of them are finding some new ‘Favourite Beers’!

* What have been the key challenges that you have faced over this period?

The first major challenge that we faced was shifting 15 kegs of craft beer that we had in the cellar which would almost certainly be beyond their dates before we could open the bar again. Luckily, we had shut our bar down and had been selling our draught beers for take-away at half price for a week before the pubs were told to shut which meant we had sold it all before other outlets were starting to try and shift theirs.

Our next problem was whittling down the massive amount of stock we had in the cellar. I had seen the way things were heading and stopped ordering new stock about four weeks before the lockdown. This, together with the Pre-Christmas levels of business in our last week open (the week after the pubs shut) helped to shift a good portion of our standby stock.

The next few weeks of home deliveries saw us go from over 750 lines in the shop to just over 300 as we totally cleared the cellar (except for the Belgian Beers) and started to double, triple and even quad face some beers. My initial instinct had been to try and shift anything with a BBE date of less than three or four months, which mainly meant cans of craft beer and our entire German range – this was fine to start with, but as we saw the level of demand pick up for our curated deliveries I soon realised that I would need more stock, and pronto.

Then came the next problem – many of our usual wholesalers were now shut down and lots of breweries (particularly many from Bristol) who usually would deliver to Cheltenham, were now sticking to local deliveries. We have overcome this by firstly engaging with several more remote breweries directly and my daughter has started doing a fairly regular run down to Bristol to visit breweries and collect beers.

* How have your sales been over the past few weeks?

The week that the pubs shut was manic as everyone rushed to get beers ahead of the impending ‘Lockdown’ – it really was ‘week before Christmas’ levels of business. Since then, we have had a steady amount of trade, but not matching what we would normally be doing, particularly over Easter and bank holidays. Thankfully, we applied for and were paid the Small Business Support Grant which is keeping our heads above water.

As we are curating the deliveries now it allows me a lot of flexibility to get in the beers I know will be popular, but I do need to have a few of those ‘Special’ releases from the ‘in’ breweries just to keep the level of interest up and give me something to talk about on social media! We have now settled into having a good range of styles, strengths and packaging – certainly for UK and Belgian beers – German beers are a bit more problematic, but it is the US beers and other key European beers that are getting very hard to source.

One range of beers that was selling well before the crisis was low and no-alcohol beers – unfortunately nobody seems to want them in lockdown (why would you if not driving anywhere?), so I can see them all going out of date.

* What are your concerns for the future of the bottle shop and craft beer sectors?

I don’t think anyone can predict what the ‘New Normal’ will be for our industry. If there is no effective way of avoiding the virus (Vaccines, treatments etc.) other than enforced ‘Social Distancing’, I really can’t see many bars, pubs and restaurants successfully opening again, and the way we socialise will need to totally change. Of course, even if a successful vaccine becomes available it could be many months, even years before we can return to the situation as it was at the start of this year. As such I can see bottle shops like us that rely on a good on-trade for viability really struggling.

Other real challenges will be getting people to come back to small independent bottle shops again, when lockdown eases. Many will have got used to ordering direct from their favourite breweries (who are unlikely to stop selling direct), big online players and even supermarkets – the competition is going to be far stiffer than it was before.

I can imagine a situation where the overall craft beer sector shrinks significantly in the short-term with many small independent bottle shops and breweries throwing in the towel (it was probably a bubble about to burst anyway), but it may be that it will come back stronger than ever in the long term for those that survive.

* Separately, do you think there are any opportunities for off-trade beer specialists at the moment, and looking ahead?

If we can capture the imagination of the beer drinking public, we have a chance. We will need to offer a better service than many have done in the past – it will no longer be enough to just stock the ‘cool beers’. Shops will need to engage the public with more and more information and ‘experiences’ that the bigger players just can’t do. We will need the help of the brewing industry more than ever to do this and I think we will need to form more alliances amongst ourselves (this is starting to happen) and work together as a unit.

If pubs and bars do not re-open for a while, there will be a key period where we can build loyalty with customers and show them what the benefits of using small independent specialists are.

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