Club seals reputation of independents

Wine clubs can generate interest and create customer loyalty as well as make money. Graham Holter reports

Running a wine shop is not an easy way of making money . With customers distracted by gondola-end deals while they get their weekly groceries, and tempted by the internet, new tactics are called for to retain customer loyalty.

Wine clubs are often part of the solution. Most are not as polished as anything from the Direct Wines empire, as value-focused as Tesco or as exclusive as some of the highfalutin offerings from the tweedier regional merchants. Yet many have proved

there is often strong local demand for regular tasting s that help people

better understand what they drink, and to buy it a little more cheaply.

With modest ambitions, a little planning and some trial and error, wine clubs can yield dividends for even the smallest merchants. Two independents who have achieved success with their own clubs tell OLN how it was done.

Mumbles Fine Wines, Swansea

For £30 a year, members of the store's wine club receive invitations to bi-monthly tastings, discounts on the wines on offer, and a membership card entitling them to 10% off anything in the shop - excluding offers.

Manager Jon Moore says: "The first wine club we did was at the beginning of last year - we've only been open 18 months. When we started

we had 15 or 20 members and now we've

got two

clubs going - the original

one, which has 70 members and meets every other month , and another , which meets the months in between

and has 38 members.

"At one point we had 100 members and the shop can only really comfortably fit in 30 people, but then there are always people who can't make it. We normally run the clubs over a Monday and Tuesday, but last November we had to do it on the Sunday as well because it was so popular."

The club is aimed at everyone from experienced connoisseurs to people who "haven't got a clue about wine".

"Some wine clubs ask you to buy a case a month, but ours is totally different because there's no obligation to buy any wine at all," says Moore. "We do have members who don't buy any wines. They come along and taste a minimum of eight wines and have a little bit of food and off they go, and they're quite happy with that.

"With a lot of other wine clubs you're tied up, you have to buy a case of wine a year or something like that. We've never liked forcing people to buy anything."

Members receive a file which gradually builds up to include details of the wines they have tried and their own tasting notes. Canapés are provided during tastings and food matches are discussed in tasting sessions led by consultant John Roberts.

"We try

to give a theme," says Moore. "Old World versus New World was the first we did. We've also done Get Ready for Summer and Get Ready for Christmas. The hardest part is trying to pick a theme. We've got a blind tasting coming up and we've got to work that one out yet."

For Mumbles Fine Wine, the object of running the club has not been purely money

oriented. The £30 membership does not cover the costs of administering the tastings but the orders generated at least ensure the club is profitable.

"I wouldn't say we make much money out of the wine club," Moore admits. "But it has worked. Everyone who comes along enjoys it."

South Downs Cellars, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex

There are two levels of membership at South Downs Cellars' wine club: standard, at £30 a year, and prestige at £60 a year or £90 for couples.

Standard membership entitles customers to 10% off tickets to tastings, with the first ticket provided free; a complimentary bottle of wine; and admission to themed club evenings held every three months. Prestige members receive all of those benefits plus a 10% case discount.

Owner Lucy Harris says: "We started the club four years ago - the shop has been open for five. It's grown consistently and virtually all the members who joined at the beginning are still members. There are about 60 or 70 members in all.

"Membership is split half and half between the prestige membership and the standard membership. As it's worked out, the two different memberships have appealed to different groups of people. Prestige appeals to people who buy their regular cases but they generally don't come to the tastings. Standard membership has appealed to people who come to tastings and like the discounts on the wines there. It's really like running two clubs.

"We're in the process of tweaking it slightly because I have other things that aren't under the umbrella of the club,

such as the monthly case deals, and it would make sense if it was all part of the club structure.

"We try to vary themes as much as possible. We've recently had two winemakers from Italy, one from Spain and Argentina is coming up in May. I do tasting dinners with the restaurant down the road every three months and the rest are in the shop with nibbles, not a meal. I try to have one a month but in the winter period it's not quite that frequent.

"It's a lot of extra work, but the reason I set it up and the reason it's still going is to maintain customer loyalty and keep the interest going."

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