Louise Oliver set up her Seven Cellars business in 2015 in Brighton. Here she talks to Drinks Retailing about how sales have been in the past year and her plans for the future:

How have sales been over the past 12 months, excluding lockdown?

We are quite well established in Seven Dials in Brighton now, and we have a very friendly local customer base, so were really happy with shop sales over the past 12 months and trade did increase by a healthy margin.

We had been focusing on our website. It was a big investment and we really didn’t see much activity there in comparison to the shop sales, but I kept faith. At one point speaking to our website consultant I said: “One sale a day would be brilliant.” We hadn’t at that point achieved that in spite of my efforts, or anticipated what would happen during the more recent few months. As far as the range goes, our focus has been a steady increase of natural wines and Pet Nats in reaction to demand from customers.

We have some incredibly adventurous customers so they will take a chance on new and unusual grape varieties and styles when we get them in.

Our craft beer range continues to expand and change on a weekly basis. We also stock a good range of German pils and this has been really popular too.

I’m particularly keen on making sure our range of spirits is exciting. I’m always buying unusual ones. Gin certainly seems to be strong for us but it is not as dominant as it was. Customers are choosing to experiment with different spirits and cocktails.

Vermouth has become really strong and we have a great range to choose from. We respond to demand, always.

Which areas have you focused on recently in terms of adding new stock?

We have been increasing our range of Portuguese wines because we have a fantastic Portuguese delicatessen next door – Adelia makes some of the best Portuguese food I’ve ever had. She seems to tempt the Portuguese and Seven Dials population of Brighton with her stews, bacalao and other treats reminiscent of home (and holidays), so we naturally get a lot of customers looking for wines to accompany that style of food.

Another area for expansion over the past year or so is sake. We love it. We had to postpone a sake tasting we were going to host just before lockdown.

For a small shop, our range is pretty good with about 15 or so different ones.

I’ve also enjoyed offering more wines from Alto Adige in Italy. My husband keeps pestering me to stock more alpine wines but he will just drink them all. The customers really like them too.

How did you operate your business through the lockdown weeks?

We closed the door to customers during lockdown to protect our staff. I caught Covid early on and it was utterly awful.

I just didn’t know what to do about the shop, so I was preparing to close, but the decision was made for me – customers began to order on the website. It just started happening with a bang immediately and this continued throughout lockdown.

I was so thankful that all my efforts on the website finally paid off. We operated using a contactless delivery service, which we are still doing, and the staff packed boxes all day. Our shop became a warehouse and we all worked our tushes off.

The reaction from local people was amazing. And it was an amazing time – driving in Brighton, Hove and the surrounding areas in completely empty streets is something I’ll never forget. Quite surreal. One of my suppliers described it as like a sinister Christmas – it was. All this said, it must be remembered that for many people it was dreadful, so it wasn’t a good time in that respect at all.

What were the key challenges you faced over this period?

We reacted so quickly and we delivered every day to start with, so maybe 80 to 100 deliveries a day.

The biggest hurdle was stock control. If we were out by a bottle and someone ordered it, we would  substitute it and then we’d be out on a different line by a bottle. I was pulling my hair out some days.

However, we soon got a handle on it. Getting stock was perfectly easy. The suppliers did an incredible job – hats off to them.

With such demand, I was not let down by one single business and support was offered from the very beginning. We were offered all sorts, from lower minimum quantities to a reduction in prices.

They did everything they could to help and now you couldn’t find a more loyal customer to those businesses than me. I’m so thankful.

The best thing is we have seen new customers become returning customers and so sales continue to be buoyant.

With all that I have said, I am very concerned about the future. We approach the next six months with extreme caution. The recession is probably going to hit us hard.

Do you think there are any opportunities for off-trade wine specialists at the moment, and looking ahead?

Yes, we do. I feel there will be a lot more entertaining at home in the next couple of years. This is in partly due to the problems that restaurants and bars are facing in town centres, making them less attractive places to visit. You can get a really good bottle of wine from an independent retailer at less than it costs for a house wine in a pub. Online retail has had a huge boost in lockdown and people have got used to buying in this way.