There is something delightfully English about calling your retail business The Good Wine Shop. It expresses a certain level of confidence that you know what you are doing, without being over the top and brash about it. But it also encapsulates the friendly, easy going, but also highly professional nature and personality of its founder, Mark Wrigglesworth. Over the last 15 years he has quietly built his business up into a small chain of four much loved, neighbourhood wine merchants in leafy areas of south London all built around the premise of selling “good wine, from real people with great stories”. Richard Siddle paid him a visit at his store in Richmond Hill to find out just how good his wine shops really are.
The Good Wine Shop is actually four – potentially – good wine shops in Kew, Chiswick Richmond and most recently Teddington. Whichever one you visit the trading strategy is the same, explains founder Mark Wrigglesworth.
“The only wine business I have ever worked in is my own. So I have not got any template or rule or thumb to go by,” is how Mark Wrigglesworth first introduces himself as we sat down for a chat last month at his Good Wine Shop in the currently not so leafy Richmond Hill.
But despite his lack of practical wine experience, or perhaps because of it, he has gone on to rack up a series of retail and merchant awards in most of the major competitions – the Richmond Hill store was named Best London Neighbourhood Wine Shop in London at this year’s Decanter Awards.
He says his vision for a successful wine merchants has “all evolved from a blank piece of paper” and even admits he was not any sort of wine geek when he first started out working in it.
What he is, though, is a specialist in running a business. Time and again he goes back to the lessons and experiences he learnt in his previous career working initially in healthcare, which involved setting up, from scratch, a European division for a US healthcare company.
“It was brilliant for me. I was only 26 years old at the time and it enabled me to really cut my teeth in knowing how to run a business,” he says. “I was given a free rein to do what I wanted.”
After five years he had built it up to a turnover of close to £1 million and was “ready for a change”.
Next up he switched to the telecoms sector where he was able to work as part of a small start-up business, helping it to grow to a company with 50 staff over a three-year period.
With that level of business experience behind him, Wrigglesworth says he felt it was time to “own something” for himself.
Which is when wine came into his life. Or to be specific his mum bought him some Michael Schuster wine courses for Christmas 2000 and he had his “light-bulb moment” to want to run a wine business.
He thought the easiest way to do that would be to run a wine shop. Which is where circumstances come into play – for in talking to the owner of his local wine merchants in St Margarets, a good penalty kick away from Twickenham, it was clear he was ready to sell up. And fast.
So before he knew it he had the keys to the business and literally a “bin liner full of accounts”. “It was a right mess,” says Wrigglesworth. “He was supposed to spend some time showing me the ropes, but the next day he left.”
Leaving Wrigglesworth with a mound of accounts to sort out and shelves of wines to sell.
Which he did, slowly but surely, learning how to run a retail wine merchants and get to understand the dynamics of the UK and global wine industry at the same time.
Five years later he had built the business up to a point where he felt it was time to branch out and open up another store, which he did in Kew. That, he says, was the real turning point.
It was also around 2011 that he tells me we first met. Or at least he came to one of the Top Merchants conferences I helped organise and chair during my days on Harpers.
It is particularly rewarding to hear just how useful he had found those sessions, and in particular the experiences of Hal Wilson at Cambridge Wine Merchants (“such a big help and so generous with his time”) and other leading wine merchants on how they had gone from one to two to a small chain of stores.
“It was so inspiring to hear their stories and really helped give me the confidence to think seriously about doing the same,” he says.
To do that has meant really understanding where the Good Wine shop’s retail model can work. “To sell good wine, from real people with great stories,” is how Wrigglesworth sums it up. “We try and focus on family wineries and offer some thing unique and unusual, with a few new kids on the block.”
It has, though, resulted in a few stop, starts along the way. In 2011 he decided not to renew the lease on the St Margarets site and look for a better location, which duly came in Chiswick in 2012.
He quickly followed that by taking what turned out to be the ill fated decision to open a third store in Esher in Surrey.
On paper it looked like the perfect site, offering a premium wine merchants to one of the most affluent areas in the country. The reality was very different. This was not a neighbourhood that popped out to the local wine store a couple of times a week. If they drank wine they did so through a private wine merchants and took wine from their own cellar.
“It also made me realise that to be a good wine merchants you have to be part of the community, you need to know your customers by name, the names of their dogs and kids.”
You also have to be where it is easy to recruit good quality, reliable staff. To do that in and around London, for example, you need to be on the Tube network as it “gives you a massive pool of people to draw on”.
It was also around this time that Wrigglesworth decided to go and see a business coach to talk through how he was running the business. It proved to be a breakthrough decision.
“I was sceptical at first, but it really helped me take a step back from what I was doing and truly understand the business we had,” he explains.
Finding the work life balance
Primarily it taught Wrigglesworth a valuable lesson. You simply cannot be in two or three places at the same time. Particularly if you become known as the “face” of the business. What do your loyal, local customers think when you are hardly ever in the store when they go to shop? What sort of family and social life can you have if you are constantly racing between stores not just in busy south London, but many miles away in Esher?
“I found I was being pulled from one place to another. I was working 70 hours a week and not seeing my children. I realised if I was going to make the business work, I needed to have a full-time manager in each site,” he explains.
He says he would “highly recommend” any business owner in the same position as him wanting to grow the business, but working so hard you can’t see how, to work with a business coach.
“It helps you get the balance in your life right.”
It now means that he commits every year to going on a four week summer holiday, because he knows he has the quality of staff to keep the business going when he is away.
Each store has its own manager and assistant manager, and Ben Craighead has been working as operations manager for the business for over five years.
Knowing when to ‘let go’ is just as important as throwing yourself into a business, he stresses. But, he admits, it took him a while – and a business coach – to understand that.
He was, for example, doing all buying himself up to three or four years ago. “I learnt I had to delegate. My skills are more as a generalist.”
Instead he has brought people into the business with the diplomas and wine knowledge to take over that side of things. But they need to have “commercial nous” too and each store has its own trading targets and there is a “healthy competition” between each of the teams about who comes out top each week in terms of sales and profit.
He also ensures there is a good mix of staff between sites and managers will often go into each others sites so that there is the group culture as well.
It has also allowed Wrigglesworth to invest the time he needs to plot and plan the next stage of the company’s growth. For having sold the Esher site in 20 16 – to a hairdressers – he was on the lookout for a new store somewhere close to south west London where the Good Wine Shop had made its home.
Right place, right time
Finally the right location came up at the right time, some three years later in 2019, and he was able to get his hands on what is the now the shop on Richmond Hill, as part of a small enclave of shops right in the heart of the local area. It not only worked in terms of the local customer base, but the site was more than just a shop, as it had extensive storage space, a large basement and, best of all a 600sq ft warehouse attached.
Now The Good Wine Shop had the base to establish a head office, but also the foundations on which to grow its distribution, delivery and, vitally really start to push a new online business.
It also meant he was able to push on and quickly open a fourth store earlier this year in Teddington – an area he had been looking at some time.
The fact the Richmond Hill store was named Best London Store in the Decanter Awards within a year of opening is testimony to all the hard work that has gone behind the scenes and a real vote of confidence for the business as a whole, says Wrigglesworth. “It’s also a real accolade for all the team,” he adds.
“They have done a great job in engaging with the local customers here. They just get the DNA of the business. It’s also a great award for our local neighbourhood here as well to feel proud of.”
Although Wrigglesworth believes he has come up with a trading concept that works for the neighbourhood parts of south west London where he has opened his stores, he does not have a one size fit for all approach for them.
The Kew site is much more of a hybrid set up where there is a strong wine bar business with seats for up to 18 people. Richmond Hill now offers that as well, with tables in and outside for 12 that helps to create the right look and feel for the store.
“It’s the chance to strengthen those relationships with your customers,” he explains. “To talk in a more relaxed way about the wines they like and why, which means we can offer them a better service.”
Dealing with Covid-19
Like everyone else in the drinks industry Wrigglesworth had the various carpets of his stores pulled from his under feet come March 23 and the national Covid-19 lockdown of the UK. Having only just opened the Teddington store in March – five days before lockdown- with the cost of a major fit out to claw back, it could not have come at a worse time.
But from thinking “15 years of my life has just been flushed down the toilet” he, and so many other wine merchants, were suddenly thrust into the spotlight with unprecedented demand for his wine and spirits. Particularly online.
Talking about making your own luck. The investment in building a DTC website in 2019, and even taking on a dedicated ecommerce manager to look after it, has paid off handsomely in 2020. Almost overnight it went from simply treading water, turning over a handful of orders a week, it was suddenly turning around over 200 every 24 hours. “If we did not have the support of the head office and warehouse we could not have done it,” he says.
Staff were switched from store duties to working flat out on picking lines just to keep up with the demand. “It was overwhelming,” he says.
It also meant switching the focus of its range to the more everyday, affordable wines of £15 and below. A big success was putting together a selection of mixed cases and even with a minimum order of £250, just to keep on top of the demand, they “still flew”. But also helped bring the daily orders down to a more manageable 70 to 80 a day.
Wrigglesworth also brought on three drivers to help keep up with orders, 80% of which were to local customers.
Since that initial lockdown the balance of online has switched quite quickly back to 80% national, which is more in keeping with a sustainable e-commerce model, he says. With surges in local demand in step with the current lockdown and tier system.
It has meant also understanding a whole new way of doing business, where you are investing in digital, pay per clip advertising and really need to have that specialist e-commerce knowledge to make it work.
Which is why Wrigglesworth has now brought in Jenny Metulet, as digital marketing manager to help oversee its online expertise. “It is something I have really wanted to do for a while in order to give us the understanding of what the sweet spot is in terms of our online sales versus what we are investing in on SEO, and digital marketing,” he says.
Not the time for wholesale
Unlike other leading wine merchants Wrigglesworth has deliberately not gone into wholesaling, other than with a few select local restaurants.
“If you wholesale in London then you very quickly are competing with some of your suppliers,” he says.
He also questions the risks and rewards with wholesaling where you are on average having to give up “half the margin for two times the risk” where a lot of your cash flow is caught up in offering credit to your wholesale customers. “It’s not a part of the business that has really been attractive to me.”
It does, though, do direct shipping which makes up around 15% of its range to ensure it has enough exclusive wines, without the added 10-15% margin of dealing with a supplier. “We are pushing to do more of that where we can get the right economies of scale.”
He is also looking to do more own label and exclusive labels, following the success he has had working with Pieter Walser and Blank Bottle in South Africa.
Wrigglesworth also says he is able to demonstrate the personality and DNA of the business through the range of spirits and beers it takes on. Brands that often start off small with The Good Wine Shop and then go on to new listings when they grow, like with the local Beavertown Brewery. “We had Logan Plant pouring his beer as a start up in our Kew Shop six years ago.”
Similarly it has forged a close relationship with the Compass Box Whisky who are based in Chiswick.
It has also had do slim down the number of suppliers it works with this year to keep things as efficient as possible and now mostly works with Thorman Hunt, Les Caves de Pyrene, Boutinot, Swig, and Tiger Vines.
Constantly under review
Although the business has fared well through 2020 and Covid-19, Wrigglesworth is acutely aware it has gone from two stores to effectively five, with the website, in the space of the year and is constantly reviewing how it is going.
The business now has a core range of around 600 wines that goes into all the stores, with the flexibility for each store manager to list more or less of a particular style or country. “We were at 850 wines, but that is too many,” he says. “We need every bottle to earn its place on the list.”
Which means his managers have their own budgets to work to and if they want to invest in any new areas, they need to show it can deliver the ROI needed for the company.
He knows, for example, that the sweet spot for his wine sales are £15 to £35, with an average bottle selling price of £18, which works out online at around £190 per order.
Again that brings us back to the importance of looking dispassionately at what is doing as a business leader, and not as a wine lover where you might end up listing more wines.
“I have had that business discipline drummed into me,” he explains.
And it means he can stand below his Good Wine Shop sign, proud with that he and his team has achieved.