Lucy Britner caught up with Sainsbury’s head of wine buying Georgina Haughton at the supermarket’s tasting earlier this month

“We’re showcasing innovation and what’s coming up for summer,” Haughton says. “Another thing that we’ve focused on over the past 12-18 months in particular is our great value, because of the cost-of-living crisis.”

 Haughton says the tasting features a few of the company’s “house” entry level products.  “We’ve pulled out the ones that we think are showing particularly well, just so that journalists can talk about value to customers.” The range includes a House Pinot Grigio at £4.85.

Further up the scale, the tasting – in keeping with company-wide initiatives – centres heavily on the supermarket’s premium own label, Taste the Difference.

Haughton mentions recent results, in which Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts emphasised a continued focus on the food business as part of the company strategy. In results for the year to March 2, Roberts said Sainsbury’s delivered Taste the Difference sales growth of 12%.

“With sales of £1.6 billion, Taste the Difference is proportionately the biggest premium own-label brand of the full-choice grocers,” he outlined as part of the results announcement.

“BWS and all drinks are within that,” says Haughton. “Taste the Difference is absolutely the priority for the business, which we love because wine has always over-indexed within Taste the Difference.”

Haughton says wine makes up around 17% of Taste the Difference sales and the Taste the Difference wine range is expanding but in a “really sensitive and focused way”.

“There are key range gaps in Taste the Difference,” Haughton explains. “We’re launching a Picpoul de Pinet this summer, for example.” She also highlights Taste the Difference summer innovation with a pre-mixed Sangria, and ready-to-drink Gin and Tonics in 75cl bottles.

Mid-strength

In September, Sainsbury’s began to focus on championing mid-strength wines and Haughton says the supermarket has just launched a range of Taste the Difference mid-strength offerings, including Taste the Difference Mid-Strength Val de Loire 2023 at 8.5% abv and Taste the Difference Mid-Strength Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2023 at 9.5% abv.

“We’re facing into moderation in a way no one else has done,” she says. “No one else has brought it together and given it an actual destination. Previously, when we’ve had mid-strength lines in the main range, they got a bit lost – customers weren’t finding them.”

So far, Haughton says the mid-strength wines are “performing well”, without giving away any numbers. She also hints at further NPD for Autumn.

“It’s obviously a small category at the moment, but we’ve over invested in the space to get it going – and given it a destination. We launched with brands in September and wanted to fast-follow with Taste the Difference because that gives customers reassurance.”

When it comes to who is buying these wines, Haughton says it’s generally those that are moderating, rather than those looking specifically for low and no alcohol products. “It’s the usual wine consumer who is moderating midweek – that’s what we’ve seen in the initial data, but it’s really early days.”

Overall, Haughton says the macroeconomic climate is still playing a part in drinking trends.

“Off trade volumes are in decline,” she says, mentioning the cost-of-living crisis. “We’re performing ahead of the market with volume market share growth every month for the last 14 months.

“Customers continue to switch from the on trade into the off trade and actually our premium sales are doing really well. So, entry is performing very well, where we’ve invested into value, but premium is still outperforming the market.”

Future shopping

On the merchandising side, Haughton mentions new stores.

“Last Autumn, we launched eight new BWS trial stores where we’ve totally redone the look and feel in store – wooden fixtures and a lower level of lighting make it feel a bit like a shop within a shop. And a lot more digital screens – with wine and food pairing advice for example.”

Haughton adds that this work is alongside a new ‘future of the superstore’ concept, with the pilot shop opening last December in Witney, Oxfordshire.

“That’s a kind of total store future look and feel, and the BWS department is quite similar to what we’ve done in those eight BWS trial stores. Lots of digital, BWS brought to the front of the store to be adjacent to fresh, so that customers can see food and wine pairings.”

She says that as the company rolls out more future superstores over the next three years, they will all get the new BWS look and feel, “which is great”.