Slurp’s current listing on Google
A couple of years ago, I carried out a little research among UK independent wine retailers asking them what concerned them most in terms of competition. The most widespread fear at the time seemed to lie in the form of one company: Slurp.com. A pure-online business with ambitions to offer a comprehensive range of wines (it claimed to be the “largest online retailer”), it seemed to offer everything that all those indies would have liked to be able to do themselves.
The Slurp home page
Some of the more ambitious wines on the
It had a smart website and £15 Italian Pinot Biancos and £16 New Zealand Chardonnays, aspirations to sell “fine wine” and, best – and most frighteningly – of all, backing from a company called Aspiration Capital Management. Underlining the philosophical kinship Slurp had with the indies, Slurp’s CEO, Jeremy Howard was quoted in a Drinks Business piece as saying that “The consumer online wants a focused experience, not a supermarket experience… We don’t fear the supermarkets.”
The profile – in June 2012 – suggesting that Slurp was leading
a UK wine retail revolution
The video channel
Unquestioning coverage from another UK publication
of the shift into fine wine
How things change… The Drinks Business coverage
of the acquisition of the “troubled” company
Mr Howard may look back on that comment ruefully. Today, his UK business has collapsed and been sold by the administrators, along with what Greg Shaw, commercial manager of the purchaser, EH Jones, described – in another Drinks Business piece – as “a small amount of wine for immediate delivery”.
Shaw went on to say that “Slurp had been growing its sales and customer base but was unable to trade profitably in the UK… [the company] had worked very hard to build up its business over time and, although it was building up sales, its overheads were running ahead.”
Without any inside knowledge, my instincts are that this is yet another story of wine-loving, and dare I say, romantic, investors imagining that wine retailing in the UK has more to offer financially than it does. Simon Baile, briefly owner of Oddbins can fairly be accused of romanticism in the ways he both purchased the chain from Castel its French owners, and subsequently ran it into the ground with debts of £20m. But almost none of those accusations were made at the time. Even today, a search on Google reveals a wealth of unquestioning articles about how Baile was going to rescue the company.
.One of the many glowing pieces describing Baile as the
saviour of Oddbins
One of few covering its slide. (Revealingly, these
stories tended to be written by non wine-specialist journalists)
Whether Peter Jones, the Burgundy-loving entrepreneur best known for his appearances on the UK Dragon’s Den series, was romantic in backing an online venture called Gondola Wines is not clear.
The man behind yourfavouritewines.com
Today, the business has been rechristened yourfavouritewines.com and is very clearly focused on competing head on with the supermarkets. Brands are very much to the fore (as in supermarkets, or even more so) and the only Burgundies Mr J will find there for his delectation are exclusively Louis Jadots.
yourfavouritewines.com’s home page – reminiscent of
a supermarket aisle.
Angela Mount, the canny former Safeway buyer Jones chose as the website’s buyer certainly is a realist – as many suppliers can attest – and the 50%-off discounts and big-brand £5.49 bottles offered on the site are clearly aimed at people who usually do their shopping in supermarkets. Quite how successful yourfavouritewines.com has been is another question, however. Few I imagine would use the term “online wine megastar” that appears on a 2010 news post – the most recent I could find – on Jones’s PJ MEDIA website.
2010 coverage – on Peter Jones’s corporate website –
dates from 2010
So who should the independents fear? Apart, of course, from each other. First and foremost, there are the people about whom Jeremy Howard of Slurp was so dismissive. UK supermarkets are doing very well thank you with their online businesses. The UK’s “largest” online wine retailer was not Slurp, whatever the collapsed firm’s Google listing may still say, it’s Tesco. M&S have built a strong online business – selling branded wines that are not available in the shops and Waitrose is also a far better place to shop on screen than in the flesh.
Some of Tesco’s 2009 Bordeaux…
…and Waitrose’s Germans
…and M&S’s Italians
And now, Morrisons has joined the fray – with wines like Trimbach Alsace, Laroche Chablis and les Ormes de Pez Bordeaux and an innovative “Taste Test” programme devised by Bibendum.
Morrisons’ clever online taste-test
They should also fear the steady growth of Majestic – both on the street and online – and traditional mail-order/online businesses such as Lathwaites, the Wine Society and Naked Wines. Of these, Naked is particularly interesting in the way that it has convinced customers that they are buying more or less directly from small producers. The way that the company funds its smaller suppliers is undeniably original, as is the use of social media, and its highly successful live events.
Naked Wines’ website, promoting the way
the direct-selling retailer has helped anindividual winemaker
Much of what Naked Wines does is, however, very comparable to its competitors Laithwaites’ and the Wine Society’s tastings are well attended too, as of course are Tesco’s brilliant;y successful Wine Club events. Botter, supplier of many of its Italian wines is also the name behind similar numbers of that country’s reds and whites in, yes, Tesco. The £40 Naked Wines vouchers that fall out of your Amazon parcel are not that different from ones you might have seen from Virgin.
Naked Wines’ page on Alessandro Botter reveals thatBotter’s is “a big business by Naked standards” – but maybe
not how big
Finally, however, there is another little threat they might like to consider, in the shape of firms like Vintage Marque. If you haven’t heard of this young UK specialist, you might be impressed by some of the producers on its website: Guigal, Torres, Torbreck. Warwick Estate, Bouchard Père et Fils, Barbadillo, not to mention, Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Graham’s and Blandy’s.
Vintage Marque, the new retail brand from wholesaler
John E Fells
The clue to Vintage Marque lies in those last three brands – all of which belong to the Symington family which also owns a well-respected wholesaler called John E Fells. In other words, one of Britain’s top wholesalers now has a retail arm. Fells doesn’t undercut the retailers who sell its wines – in fact its prices are among the highest on wine-searcher.com – but let’s face it, when someone buys a Guigal Côte Rôte from Vintage Marque, they’re not buying it from an independent retailer.
I’m not saying that a flood of wholesalers are going to follow in Fells’ footsteps, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few… And what I am saying is there are some salutary lessons to be learned from the failure of such widely touted recent UK industry players as Simon Baile and Jeremy Howard.
If I were an independent retailer in the UK today, I certainly would be a lot more worried about online retailers with a human dimension like Naked, and about Tesco Fine Wine and the way that it and the other supermarket online offerings evolve, than about the Slurps of this world.