Butler's Wine Cellar, Brighton

Butler’s, which boasts the title of Brighton’s oldest wine merchant, was set up by owner Henry Butler’s parents in 1979.

The company, which has two retail outlets, mail order and internet operations, stocks more than 1,500 wines from small producers all over the world. Here, Butler talks to Drinks Retailing about how he coped with being diagnosed with prostate cancer, alongside navigating the company through the Covid-19 weeks

Tell us about the challenges you faced when the country first went into lockdown

At the time I was battling with prostate cancer, so I had to have two weeks of isolation either side of the operation, which was in the middle of the first Covid-19 lockdown period. My partner, Cassie, also had to isolate, although she was able to go into the shop when the team was not there. It was just awkward having two of us out of our tiny team, especially during a tricky time anyway.

We were probably assessing the business every single week and changing it. Our priorities were to keep our team healthy and fit, particularly because we were in fairly close proximity to each other, and we had to look after our customers, so we shut the shops straight away and just did online deliveries. We had wanted to move towards that a bit more anyway, so this just prompted us to focus on it.

Were customers supportive of the changes you had to make?

I have grown up with this as my family business so I have always been mindful of supporting independent shops.

It’s taken a pandemic to get people shopping local, whereas I have always been used to shopping that way. But lots of things colliding together – the focus on local and independent businesses, and the closure of the ontrade – made us so busy, and it was easybusy really, once we got into the groove.

It was still really hard, but once you get into a rhythm and you tell the customers “this is how it is going to work” – while keeping cautious not to overdeliver because we didn’t want to let people down – then it was fine. Most of our customers are local and they have been super-appreciative.

They were happy they were still getting the wines they liked, and they mostly seemed to want a bit of a chat and interaction. I don’t think they have missed coming in the shop too much, but people miss people, don’t they?

Did people order the same wines as before?

Quantity was key. They were definitely ordering more. In the summer sales dipped quite a lot. It was good weather in Brighton and people were able to go out to pubs and bars for a period, but once September hit and there was a switch back to at-home drinking, we saw sales pick up a lot again.

We definitely attracted some new customers and people who didn’t know we delivered wines, even though we have been doing it for 40 years.

People were drinking at home more ith friends and we found we were picking up orders from those friends and attracting new customers that way.

We also seemed to attract bored blokes in London, who were looking for certain wines on the internet and came across us that way. That side of things has been going up, so nice Californian wines and top Bordeaux ones, they have been flying out of the shop. That’s a nice day when those orders come in.”

I would say for local customers we sell a lot of nice everyday drinking wines priced £10-15. Then with international sales it’s a big jump to wines over £150, and that side has been going well.

We have also had customers coming to the shop and asking for a selection of wines for a certain amount, and some of those people have been spending more and getting some really nice things, so some £20-40 Italian and French wines, for example.

Making up a box is probably our favourite thing to do. You build the relationship and that helps retain the customer. You want to make it really good for them and we have such good products. We are very lucky that we have built this up over a period of time, and we have new things coming in every week. We want others to be as excited about our products as we are. And if they trust us to give them that opportunity then it’s good fun.

How have you adapted the business?

We have always had a mail order business selling nationally and internationally, using a courier. This has given us time and space to concentrate on improving that service.

It has forced us to cut out some of the stuff we used to do, and perhaps we had just done it that way for years out of habit. We have now stripped it back and made it a bit more focused.

This year was pretty much all retail, and that has been ordered through the internet, not even over the phone. We just directed everything through the internet and took it to people’s houses. It’s weird because you almost don’t need the shop, but we don’t want to be entirely online.

Ideally, we would eliminate both shops and just have one bigger unit, maybe with a tasting room and more storage, and have all the bits in one place.

But I think we have done OK because our business is a split of internet shop, retail and wholesaling so whatever segment went down we still had a backup.

On the positive side, we have really worked on having a better work-life balance because of this. We come home a bit earlier and we don’t get caught up in so much stressful stuff.

A MESSAGE TO MEN IN THE WINE TRADE AND BEYOND

My brother and I were both 49 when we were diagnosed with prostate cancer, so we really want to share the message that blokes our age need to get tested and they need to be brave and have a GP internal search. This is what we stress all men over 50 should have.

There are a lot of men of a certain age in the wine trade and I bet they are not getting themselves tested as they should. If you catch it at the early stage, you can go back to normal and be cancer-free, so we think testing is really important. We would like it to be treated like smear tests for women, where you are prompted to have a test.

We didn’t have symptoms of cancer so we were really lucky because, if left for a few more years, it spreads into the rest of your body and then we wouldn’t be here.

My cancer was diagnosed because I went to have a sinus problem checked out and after being blasted with a million antibiotics, I became ill. We didn’t know what was wrong, but they discovered my prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels had gone up, and this is

an indicator of cancer. But the PSA test isn’t always correct, so the GP internal search really is the best test to do. My brother had no symptoms but got tested because of me and was also diagnosed with prostate cancer, so we both had the operation at roughly the same time.

It turned out that my surgeon knew me because we had done some fundraising tastings in his hospital, so he had become a customer. He reassured me I would be all right at the end of the operation and that we would go out and drink some South African Chardonnay together to celebrate.

The operation was during lockdown. It was pretty cool, millions of nurses and no patients. It was like being in a hotel and I was very well looked after.

I have been working from home a lot since the operation as I am still not supposed to lift much.

Cassie and the team have been amazing. They have not only kept the business going, they have improved it.

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