Last week, M&S held its spring/summer press tasting. Drinks Retailing caught up with Andrew Shaw, head of trading for drinks, to talk about the customer experience, new product development and the department’s approach to sustainability

How does M&S differ from other retailers when it comes to drinks?

Andrew Shaw: Other retailers sell more promotable lines because a lot of brand owners have the investment to spend. But we don’t have that investment because our own label, almost exclusivity, is a unique proposition. We replicate the on-trade much more in terms of product mix, than any other retailer.

We are in complete control of our own destiny. We don’t have an allegiance or contract with suppliers that determines the shape of our portfolio. We work closely with our suppliers on products and on supply chain but not necessarily on brand positioning or tiering. Historically, M&S has been a good place for brilliantly-sourced wines – from really interesting to mainstream styles.

Three years ago, we reduced the line count quite dramatically, from 900 to 450 wines – and we saw an uplift in sales. Sometimes less is more.

What work are you doing to improve the BWS experience?

AS: We have recently concentrated on significantly improving store experience for customers; we differ to other retailers with a different, or complex portfolio of products. It can be quite hard to navigate as we don’t have signpost brands apart from our own, such as Classics and Found, which have done a stellar job. We are working on populating a better labelling environment, better tiering and more natural tiering opportunities, because there are a few gaps in our armour at the moment. 

What are those gaps?

AS: Gifting – wine gifting. M&S should be the home of gifting, particularly seasonal gifting. Over the past year, we’ve seen some interesting dynamics. IRI market share has increased by 1% and we’re over-achieving in sparkling wine and Champagne.  So, we’ve got customers who are willing to spend money and come to us and buy a gift in that premium price point. And they are very happy to buy non-branded products.

Over the next 12-18 months, we’re planning on reviewing all of the labels and designs and the architecture of each of the categories. By this time next year, I expect the look and feel, as well as the customer experience, will change. 

How will consumers navigate the range going forward?

AS: By country. We did look at other options such as variety or style, but all our customer research suggests that predominantly customers still shop by country – even by association. For example, if I like Sauvignon Blanc, I’ll probably buy Marlborough. So, if you give me a New Zealand flag, I’ll understand where I’m going.

But the beauty of the displays is that we have got these sliding fillers that fit into displays, so if in future customers buy more by style or grape variety or organic or Christmas, for example, we’ve got a fully adaptable navigational proposition.

What’s coming up in terms of NPD?

AS: You’ll see a lot of NPD through the summer. We have a new top tier range due to launch before the end of 2022, and by next year we’ll have a significant change to the look and feel of the portfolio. We’ve employed Amphora Design to look at all of our labels and we’re looking at a third-party relationship with all of our supply chain. We’re reaching out to external parties to help us, because we’re trying to do too much ourselves. Then we can use that structure to initiate a much more integrated plan. We should be strong on organic, on England, on locally-sourced. Sustainability is going to play a huge part. 

Sustainability is a big and often confusing topic. What’s your approach?

AS: As a business, we are committed to reducing our carbon footprint and being net zero by 2040 and we are looking at how we fully support this through initiatives such as bulk packing, glass lightweighting, reducing plastic. But there’s also the challenge that we’re still shipping bottled product from New Zealand and the bottles that are going for New Zealand wine aren’t made in New Zealand. There’s so much distribution and that’s the reality – it would be incredibly naïve to think we could move all production and packing to England. So, we need to do everything we possibly can, such as ship by train and not truck. There are lots of things we can do if we’re well organised with our suppliers. 

We’re also doing a formats review as part of our plans and we’re definitely doing something really innovative there.

The latest Found range includes more wines from Europe, why is that?

AS: It’s a demand-lead thing. The essence of Found is 12 wines, the wines live in the Found livery for up to two years. If they don’t work out, we cull them. If they do, after two years we’ll change the livery to a homegrown label.

To start with we launched three New World wines but they didn’t sell as well, so we brought in others. The range has got to be fluid and exciting. It has been an amazing vehicle for us.

How amazing, in terms of sales?

AS: About £6.5 million worth of sales per annum. Press recommendations or mentions on Saturday Kitchen, for example, can really catapult sales. We’re also doing quite a bit of tasting in store and we’ve got Enomatics in our new stores. The latest Found wines include Furmint 2021 and Weissburgunder 2021.

You’ve also launched some new hard seltzers – where do you see that category going?

AS: Premixed cocktail cans are a very strong environment for us. To me, the challenge with hard seltzers is there is a cult following – customers who get it. In the context of our canned proposition there’s a variety of flavour profiles and alcohol levels. I wouldn’t say they are the most successful thing we’ve ever done but they are fulfilling a purpose for a known customer mission. And like our cocktail cans, the loyalty is off the scale.