Importer PLB has called on independent wine merchants to travel round the country, visit each other’s stores and share ideas on how to grow their businesses.

Karen Hardwick, who heads up its specialist division, pointed to the example of Cambridge Wine Merchants, winner of OLN’s Drinks Retailing Award for Independent Drinks Retailer of the Year.

She said: “I say, go to Cambridge, have a look at what it’s doing – what does it feel like to be a customer in its shops? The likes of Corks Out, Latitude and Oxford Wine engage with their customers – they make it a pleasant and involving experience rather than shopping in a bright-lit, stressful supermarket.

“People should visit Cambridge and Oxford and so on and see what these places are doing and share best practices.

“These independents are not competing with each other. You can grow your whole market by learning from each other and sharing ideas.”

Ted Sandbach, managing director at Oxford Wine, said he and his opposite number at Cambridge Wine Merchants, Hal Wilson, want to form a group that will share ideas and unite in business ventures.

He told OLN: “I’m extremely interested in exploring this idea and myself and Hal Wilson are looking into forming a small group of top independents to share ideas and explore mutual business avenues. This is absolutely not intended to be a buying group, but more as a way to work together with a number of top-class, emerging companies for our mutual good and to increase our different customer databases.

“By sharing ideas and business plans we hope to be able to learn valuable lessons from each other which we would like to pass on for the general benefit of our customers.”

Chris Mitchell, owner of new Edinburgh independent Cork & Cask, said he would “definitely be open” to the idea of travelling to places such as Oxford and Cambridge to learn from the best.

He said: “You can read all the books you like but in reality we can all learn from each other by taking elements from different stores and combining them into one shop.”

“In addition, I want to import more wines so working together with other independent stores could be useful in keeping costs down if we pool our resources.”

“As long as it’s not someone directly down the street from me then it makes sense to help each other out in this way.”

Hal Wilson, managing director at Cambridge Wine Merchants, comments the potential of a union he has long championed:

“It is really beneficial whenever I have made the time to get out of the office to meet others in the industry rather than getting fixated on what we are doing ourselves.

“I get involved in speaking at seminars and I have had lots of opportunities to talk about this subject, and I always get something out of it personally as well.

“For 15 years there has been nothing organised for independents until just a few years ago, when things have been starting. There have been some initiatives from agents who are interested commercially in getting independents to work together more closely.

“Our values are pretty similar up and down the country– we have some secrets we need to keep from each other but much less than what we are willing to share with each other. All of us want a vibrant independent wine sector and between us we sell the finest wine in the country. That is what makes the UK market interesting to producers.

“There is lots of self-interest in wanting to share best practice – in sharing experiences with other successful wine merchants it is more likely that the industry will succeed than if we don’t.

“The difficult question is how can we take action beyond meeting up and sharing some ideas? When we go back to the office after meeting up we need to find a way of keeping the momentum going and keeping engaged with these issues.

“We need a project that people feed into, and I believe some of this has to be data-led. We have said that there is very little data about the size and scope of the independent sector. There are 600 of us not sharing our data, but it would benefit all of us if we did.

“For example, the Bordeaux Council believes 25% of Bordeaux wines is sold through independents, which is a huge amount. If this figure was confirmed then they might think more about the importance of independents when they come to arranging their generic campaigns, for example. And other generic bodies would be the same.

“The second thing is perhaps to set up a wine search engine. We need a campaign that promotes independent wine merchants around the country and a website with this that allows users to search for wines around the country, and discover where they are available.

“Recently the international press picked up on the importance of independent music shops for music lovers – it’s the same for independent wine shops for wine lovers.

“We are heavily regulated and taxed and battling in a difficult market but if we are able to succeed we should have something that we can learn from each other.”

“I think we need a campaign supported by some consumer-facing media, but really there is only one consumer-facing wine magazine (Decanter) and it’s not quite tapping into the information that consumers actually want.”