Will Gardener started working for the family business in the mid 1980s, straight after leaving college. Soon after he joined, the company decided to expand the business nationally via mail order, wholesale and private clients, while making more of retail premises in the Midlands town of Stourbridge. Today six family members work there, all with a different area of expertise.
What is the main focus of your business?
It’s quite a broad mix. We primarily sell wine but over the past decade we have really forced through the spirits side and this has become quite a big growth market for us.
We have one shop – we used to have several but in the 1990s we scaled it back to just one. Retail has changed over the years and we do a lot of events now.
How has business been this year?
The Brexit effect hasn’t affected us yet. We are on course and doing quite well this quarter. Last year was very good and it was a record year for us, so if we can do that again I will be very happy.
Pricing has been difficult but every merchant is finding this. We have had to attend to pricing increases and it has gradually filtered through but, on the whole, people get used to it.
What is your competition?
A Majestic opened up a few years ago and other indies are local to us too. Waitrose is on our doorstep and a big Tesco opened in the town fairly recently. We used to have five or six wine merchants in the town and many have gone, so things change.
We have the retail side but more of our business is now focused on private clients and collectors, as well as wholesale. We arrange storage for wines and spirits, we offer advice, and we help with cellar planning. We have clients that have been with us for 40 years. We are a family business and service is key, as well as offering wines at a reasonable price.
How do you keep your customers coming back?
In the 1970s and 1980s our business used to do tasting events but it tailed off, we picked up the idea of on-site tastings again and now we do about 50 or 60 a year. We can do small wine or spirit tastings, bespoke corporate events, or private ones. We also go to restaurants to do tastings. That side of the business is all growing and we have had to take on a full-time person to look after this.
We also do festivals, and we have now done 10 whisky festivals. We do two a year for whisky, and one is local and one in Birmingham. They get around 700 or 800 people attending.
We are about to do our third gin festival. We are lucky that we are central and the old town hall is nearby, and it is perfect for us for these events.
We also have a big 16th-century cellar here under the store, which fits 40 people at a push, so we have a few options for venues. We own the building here, which keeps costs down, so we don’t charge a lot to get people in to taste.
What sells well?
Interests are broadening. We are mostly classic French here but we are quite strong with Spain and Italy now. We don’t import much outside of Europe, so wines from the US or South Africa, for example, we mostly buy from third-party agents.
We import from a lot of regions in France, Spain and Italy and we deal with wholesalers all over Europe. We are doing more and more direct imports now from independent growers and we are able to get people to try the wines through our tasting events.
There is a lot of demand for good quality Prosecco and English sparkling wines. We now have six or seven of the latter and they sell well. I really didn’t see that coming.
In spirits we have 300 gins and these have been selling really well for the past two or three years. We do a lot of gin tastings and we do these with local venues too. We expect growth in gin will continue.
Whisky is our biggest spirit sector as we have focused a lot of time and energy on this, and we are quite knowledgeable as a team. We do a lot of export and we supply local businesses. In September we have our big annual festival.
Gin is big in the on-trade but whisky is more take-home and it is very complex, so people like to learn about it. The audience is getting younger and we see more women wanting to learn about whisky. And the industry is vibrant – there has definitely been a good reinvention of whisky with lots of small casks and limited releases, and the marketing is good. They all seem to be on the ball.
What are your plans for the future?
In the 1990s we pushed hard on mail order and on expanding the business nationally but now we feel we are coming back in and we are far more confident at a local level than we were before.
We would consider another store but there are so many things going on that we don’t want to deflect from areas that are doing well. We need to be sure we have a strong formula for retail and then maybe a second store would be a natural progression, but at the moment we are getting out to people via external events, rather than waiting for people to come to us.