Simon Taylor is now in a position to look back on the last three months of lockdown with a sense of satisfaction that he had a business model in place that allowed Stone Vine & Sun to switch from being an on-trade wholesaler and wine merchants to becoming a 100% e-commerce and delivery company. Its already strong online sales have proved to be its saviour as it has kept its local customers happy, but also gained many more from right around the country.
Stone Vine & Sun has been able to gain new customers from all corners of the UK during the Covid-19 lockdown thanks to having a strong e-commerce platform, says owner Simon Taylor.
Can you talk us through the different stages of how the Covid-19 lockdown has impacted your business?
Initially I was terrified at the prospect of losing 40% plus of our current business – but we swiftly realised that orders from private customers were more than making up for that loss. There was a mad initial wave – including lots of orders for Pinot Grigio, for example, from new customers who couldn’t get it from the supermarkets. That’s now waned (and I don’t mind!), but we are still running flat out.
You were potentially in a good position in that you are already a multi-channel business with your own shop, ecommerce site, wine club and on-trade – how beneficial has that been in reality?
Multi-channel has saved us – and not just ecommerce, though we are good at keeping the website lively and up-to-date. Our traditional mail order business is vital too – there’s no question more people currently have the time to read and engage with our printed lists. We are sending two out right now – Wines from the Loire and a big mixed summer list of 62 wines – and we expect those to stimulate lots of orders. Our Doorstep Dozen wine club scheme is useful too – we have signed up quite a few new customers, mainly local, for that.
What proportion of your business is the on-trade?
About 40% – but more if you include related accounts like schools and colleges
How have you found it switching to a 100% online and delivery model?
Easy – and it’s actually great to have shut the shop and not have any interruptions so we can simply focus on invoicing, picking and packing and delivery
We have seen a big jump in margins without having the on-trade in our figures – margins are up about 7%. That’s huge. Cashflow has also been important. It’s wonderful to have money flowing in every day (and without us having to chase it too!). That means we can pay everyone on time or even early
And the drawbacks?
Well, it’s fiddly. Instead of dropping 5-10 dozen at a local pub we are doing a lot of single cases, often of 9-12 different bottles. Part of this is self-inflicted – we are offering free delivery in the UK (excluding Highlands and islands) with a minimum spend of £75. There’s an annoying sort of customer who stops at £75-85 !
How have you found it getting new customers and what steps have you taken to promote your online offer?
To be honest we aren’t doing any marketing – they are just arriving.
Why do you think that is?
There are certainly some factors at play which means good independents are doing so well at the moment. In no particular order these following factors may be driving customer behaviour
- “Localism” – a desire to support local businesses.
- A better service offered, in particular a firm delivery date rather than a vague guideline offered by the giants.
- More interest in experimenting and drinking better wine (along with more adventurous food) at home.
- More time to engage online rather than just running off to the supermarkets or Majestic.
What’s the percentage split of business coming from existing compared to new customers?
New customers are perhaps 10-20% – but that’s very significant if we can keep them.
Do you see looking forward that you will do more to keep and drive the e-commerce side of the business?
Not sure. I suspect many of these people will simply go back to wherever they bought their wine before. But we are getting good feedback and we will retain some.
How do you think you could do that?
The quality of the wines we ship, fair pricing and service – and communicating with them.
You talk of a virtuous working circle – what do you mean by that?
Faster cash-flow means we can pay for wine in advance – and/or greater quantities of it – in exchange for discounts, leading to either better margins or an enhanced ability to drive sales by passing on that discount ourselves.
So that’s good news for producers in that you can push cash flow back to them quicker as well?
Yes. This has been particularly relevant in South Africa where the domestic sale of wine was stopped by the government for so long. We have orders being shipped from seven producers in the Cape and we have paid for six upfront. Those guys are really pleased.
How do you see the weeks and months ahead – what would be a good or bad scenario for you?
Good – a warm and sunny summer and a gradual relaxation of the rules for people to get together to share a glass of wine; and the on-trade reopening.
Bad – where everything is open bar the pubs and restaurants – so people can buy wine anywhere but we have lost the on-trade too.
In terms of delivery how do you handle the ordering and delivery side of things?
I can’t fault APC. They don’t break much, they have largely kept to our next working day delivery terms and they give us excellent customer service when the odd case inevitably gets broken or goes missing.
What’s your average price per bottle for delivery versus normal shop sales?
That wouldn’t show any change. But average bottle price overall is up a lot as we are no longer delivering seas of Pinot Grigio and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot to pubs!
Have you seen a difference in the kinds of wines people are buying online than they would in-store?
Looking at our total mix – some people are taking larger quantities of cheaper wines (perhaps they have young adults at home who should be in London or university) and others are definitely trading up as decent wine is one of the few accessible pleasures.
What key lessons have you learnt so far during lockdown?
Top service and messaging has been key.