When I first moved to London, I kept a list of restaurants and bars that I wanted to try. In the decade that followed I eventually gave up because the rate at which new places opened and old ones closed made the list more effort than it was worth.
That’s how the last year has felt in terms of managing wine pricing. We’ve had short vintages from suppliers, mushy exchange rates, Numberwang-style fuel surcharges and, of course, inflationbrexitandukraine, essentially now a compound word and worthy of a nomination for the Oxford English Dictionary.
Now we have reform of the duty system on the horizon, adding further complexity to the conundrum of calculating costs. I should bemoan this and reiterate the widespread view that it is a blow for people who enjoy drinking, but after five years of chaos, I’m sick of being right and ignored. Little of this is within our control and worrying about it is a one-way ticket to too many Martinis.
These challenges aren’t about negotiating pricing, or making a good deal with a supplier. Why suck up the price rises caused by governments and energy suppliers in a battle that you just can’t win? Remember that David only beat Goliath because Jehovah was on his side.
Obviously, I’m not happy that our wine taxes are going up by at least 44p. Yet, despite all the price rises to date, most indies are reporting healthy numbers. People who really like wine enough to shop with us aren’t going to stop drinking good stuff.
My instinct is that the main outcome for the industry will be to accelerate the gap between quality-focused independents and price-obsessed supermarkets. Once it was conceivable that indies would fight for a good-value sub-£10 range, or even list wines that had representation in multiples, but that increasingly looks like madness. Only operating with the economies of scale of Aldi or The Wine Society can offset rising costs.
That old sub-£10 slot coveted by lifestyle section editors is no longer worth defending. Supermarkets are surely likely to try, by tinkering with the abv to hit optimum duty bands and blending to meet price points. They’ll hope customers won’t really notice. Indies can’t and shouldn’t try to do the same.
Our customers will always appreciate a good value selection and fair prices, and indies have never been overpriced for what they offer, compared to, say, prime ministers. But value is not just why our customers visit us. We trade on quality, service and selection. Trying to be the cheapest, or to match Tesco on Johnnie Walker, is not where energy should be going. Independents are increasingly a niche, luxury proposition. We need to be a destination where customers enjoy spending money.
My local sourdough bakery is charging £4.50 for bread and sells out by lunchtime. It’s not trying to tempt the guy buying Warburtons for £1.40 in the supermarket down the road. It’s time for indies to stop wringing their hands and rise above arbitrary price points by refocusing on what they do best: selecting good wines, building an expert range, paying staff and suppliers fairly and on time, and selling with enthusiasm and great service.
If that means there are no £10 wines left on my shelves after August, so be it.