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Back to the future

Rowan Gormley explains how the Virgin Wines website was inspired by a Radiohead CD – and the need for good, old fashioned customer service. Robyn Lewis reports

SOMETIMES with the wine world it is very much a case of the emperor is wearing no clothes," says Rowan Gormley, the plain-speaking CEO of online wine retailer Virgin Wines.  "What we like to do is point that out and show people that actually you don’t have to pay attention to all the bollocks about wine that’s out there.   As long as you like the taste of it, that’s fine." 

The Virgin Wine site was, as Gormley says, one of the first wine retailers online some four years ago and has been a Gormley project from the start, developing out of an encounter he’d had with a Radiohead CD bought from

Tasting music

"I was running the financial services arm of the Virgin business at the time, Virgin Direct, when I became an Amazon customer.  For years I had been stuck buying Jethro Tull and Neil Young CDs, you know, never changing my musical tastes.

I never read reviews, never stood in music shops for hours listening to different bands and so my choice in music hadn’t evolved at all.  But then, when I went on Amazon I saw those sections flagging up what other people who liked Jethro Tull had bought and so you’d go and have a look, and there’s Radiohead and it’s fantastic music.

All of a sudden I was building up a collection of great music from bands I’d not heard of before.  At the same time I was thinking that this internet thing was happening, and I didn’t know exactly what it was but I wanted to try and get involved in it.

Then it occurred to me that the internet can do really well one thing that people in shops can’t do and that’s make these sorts of connections.  So, when I started to look around I could see what the internet was doing for music and books and I thought what else is like those two items? What else are things you buy frequently, that aren’t necessarily big-ticket items?

Basically, they are not big enough purchases to do a lot of research and so you don’t really know what it’s going to be like until you get it home and try it, by which time it’s too late, and it’s too much hassle to take it back.

And wine was the other item that was like that."  After gaining Virgin backing for the project Gormley set about constructing a website that could do the same job for consumers who knew little about wine, as Amazon had done for those who knew little about books and music.

"I started talking to our original buying team about how to achieve this very early on and their answer was very much in the, ‘If you like claret, you like claret’ vein, but if I have two bottles of claret and I prefer one to the other then that disproves that theory.

It’s like saying if you like the Red Hot Chili Peppers album, Californication, that you will like all Red Hot Chili Pepper albums when, in fact, up until very recently they were a rather heavy, grungey band and have only recently become super melodious.

So it is ridiculous to say, ‘I like all Red Hot Chili Peppers’ albums’; you like their early stuff or their late stuff and it’s the same principle with wine."

Up the Amazon

Clearly, those Amazon recommendations have done their job on Gormley’s musical knowledge.  "What then became clear was that there is approachable, friendly, juicy, easy to drink claret and there’s the stuff that’s like old farmer’s socks, so we separated them out.

Then there was a long process of making graphs to find out what made one wine taste like another until it became really obvious that the groupings were things like soft and juicy reds, huge reds, crisp whites and so on, so that’s how we arranged it.

People aren’t looking for absolute precision; they want something to taste similar, not exactly the same; otherwise, why not just keep buying the same one? They are looking to explore, so we say okay, here’s a range that matches your requirements, choose from them and that’s the key."

The result is a simple site that, in Gormley’s words, is "rather like a map with a ‘you are here’ arrow on it."  There’s a Wine Wizard which, according to Gormley, "is an easy way of being able to navigate the site in a different way.

People find it useful – it does the job ofsaying, ‘Show me other wines that taste like this.’"  There’s also a brand new gift section on the site with wine and book packages, themed bottle packs, Champagne and chocolate and gift certificates etc, which has been launched in time for Christmas but will remain a year-round feature.

Despite all the different elements, however, the overall look of the site is kept very fresh and uncluttered.  "I think that is so important," says Gormley.  "Keep it clean and don’t annoy the customer with too much irrelevant advertising is one of my golden rules.

You should also give the customers the tools to manage themselves.  Something like the Wine Wizard, for example, does that. I love the John Lewis site, and the Boots web pages are great as well; clean and simple."

There are 600 wines in the Virgin range, with no real New or Old World bias.  "We are trying to cover things that are off the beaten track and therefore, by definition, we’ve got a lot more of some areas than others," Gormley explains.

"We are much more heavily in the Languedoc, for example, than we are in Burgundy and it can be really hard to find value for money wines in areas like Chablis."  Persuading customers to try unfamiliar varietals, regions and producers is hard but one of the advantages of having a recognised brand like Virgin for support is that there is already a certain amount of consumer trust there.

A matter of trust

"I think the reality is that people do trust Virgin because what they see is a company that is genuinely out to do something decent for the consumer and to try and make money out of doing a good job rather than making money screwing people over.

So, when it comes to wine what the Virgin brand does for us is get a message across that says just because a wine is expensive and it’s a claret and it’s got a castle on the label, doesn’t mean you are going to like it.

Just because Colonel Bufty Tufty only drinks Burgundy doesn’t mean that it tastes better than something else.  You know, be brave and that association with the Virgin brand gives us some authority to convince people to have a go."

About 60% of Virgin Wine’s sales are pre-mixed cases, themed such as BBQ wines or Be British and Support the Little Guys, which was a recent offer.  "In that particular case what people are buying is the concept of 12 wines made by 12 different farmers, all individual, a bit different and more value for money that it would be if you bought 12 big brands or 12 wines from famous regions.

That’s somewhere where we can really offer a convenient service.  I mean, if we were to send you an e-mail advertising, say, our BBQ case, just as you were beginning to think about BBQ-ing, then you’re going to simply click and buy it."

Back to the future

In spite of such advantages offered by the internet and the roots of the company, Gormley insists the business is not an online one.  "Absolutely not," he says.  "About 40% ofsales are done over the phone now and we are definitely looking to increase that because ultimately the only true customisation tool is a human being.

I tend to think what customers are looking for is that kind of old-fashioned personal service you used to get from really good wine merchants, most of whom have gone out of business now.

So, you have Berry Bros at one end and the supermarkets at the other but nothing in-between.  What our account managers can do is get to know their customers and what they have bought and liked before and then recommend other wines to them.

I think this type of selling is definitely the future of wine retailing.  It is getting harder and harder to find that level of personal service in wine unless you are spending big money with an arty-farty established merchant.  So we are sort of going backwards.

We are using a modern tool to get back to that oldfashioned service."  The future for Virgin Wine is in the past then, you might say.

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