The world of alternative formats is getting more attention from producers, retailers and consumers alike. Companies such as When in Rome launched with only alt formats in mind and retailers including Waitrose are giving more attention to them. Here, When in Rome CEO & co-founder Rob Malin and Waitrose alternative formats buyer Marien Rodriguez Lopez de la Calle talk to Drinks Retailing about why the industry needs to pay bag-in-box, cans and paper bottles more attention.

“Consumers are starting to be more knowledgeable and confident about the benefits that wine in alternative formats can offer, which is very positive,” explains Rodriguez. “The main drivers for purchase are the convenience and value benefits, and this is something customers are increasingly looking for.”

She says sales performance for boxed wine reached “record highs” in 2020 and 2021 in the UK market, partly driven by the pandemic, which of course resulted in more of us drinking at home. 

“UK retailers are introducing a wider range of premium and high-quality wines and promotional activity is helping boost sales and raise awareness of these formats further,” adds Rodriguez. “Meanwhile, the wine in cans offer has increased massively.” 

Malin describes Waitrose as “an incredibly supportive partner” and he says the retailer discovered When in Rome on Instagram.

“They partnered with us to basically create the premium box wine category from scratch. In helping us and others gain the confidence to put good quality wines in boxes, that action alone has hugely raised the profile of alt format in the UK.” 

For Malin, working with the retailer has helped achieve two things: raise awareness of the environmental benefits of alt formats, including publishing the full carbon footprint of his SKUs on consumer packaging – “a first in the wine industry globally and in UK retailing”. And the second thing is about recognising and rewarding efforts to decarbonise the wine industry “by giving us the chance to introduce new SKUs (cans in this case) that replace legacy, more environmentally harmful SKUs such as small glass bottles”. 

Selling alternative formats 

Alt formats have not always been synonymous with top quality wines and Rodriguez says offering high-quality wines across the entire range as well as attractive and eye-catching designs, are key in gaining new customers, as well as ensuring loyalty from existing ones. 

“Moreover, the entire range must deliver in providing consistent quality, which will reduce purchase barriers for alternative formats,” she adds. 

There’s still work to do when it comes to getting buyers to consider more alternative formats. Malin says buyers will often say: “We already have one/enough SKUs in BiB/cans/paper bottles,” and will not look beyond the alt format container to consider the product on its own merits, such as quality, branding and price. Though he’s keen to point out this isn’t the case at Waitrose.  

“Buyers are often held back by their packaging teams who will get stuck on recyclability (BiB taps) or need to separate packaging ( BiBs, paper bottles) and completely ignore the carbon footprint, which is of course multiple times less [than glass bottles],” he says. 

Rodriguez adds that there is much more retailers can do to stock wines that are not only sustainable because of their format and their recyclability potential, but also in terms of production practices and how the wine is shipped. 

“There are many opportunities today for producers to make wine more sustainably, however, it must also be effectively communicated to help drinkers understand why wine in a different format to glass can fulfil the customer’s mission whilst being a better choice for the environment.” 

Adding to this, Malin says carbon labelling at POS would be an incredibly helpful development, as well as “placing alt formats alongside glass bottles, which would help foster a perception that these formats are equally valid as packaging solutions for wine”.  

When it comes to championing alternative formats in the future, Rodriguez believes that key stakeholders in the off-trade should come together to agree on, and implement, a set of best practices related to sustainability credentials. 

“For example, ensuring that a minimum percentage of the wine range is sourced in bulk or is sold in alternative formats and that the materials used for these formats provide the greatest recyclability potential,” she says. “Thanks to the work of companies like When in Rome, who are committed to implementing change and disrupting the way we perceive wine consumption, retailers in the UK can bring customers closer to innovation and to more sustainable ways of enjoying wine.”