Heading the wine development team at Tesco and chairing the WSET, Laura Jewell MW is a shining light for women in the wine industry.
MEASURING INFLUENCE is an imprecise science, but when it comes to the global wine trade, the world’s third largest retailer should surely be featured on anyone’s list.
With well over 3,000 stores across the UK, and an empire that stretches into 12 countries, including much of Eastern Europe, China and South Korea, Tesco is doing more to shape the wine market than any critic, producer or celebrity.
While Dan Jago heads the retail giant’s global wine operation, it is wine category product development manager Laura Jewell MW who has been the driving force behind Tesco’s increasingly important own label and exclusive label business. In addition to this daunting day job, she has also broken new ground as the first female chair of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which last year saw 48,434 students from 62 countries enrol for its qualifications. As a result of these twin responsibilities, it seemed only fitting for Jewell to be ranked among the top 10 individuals in the drinks business’ 2012 list of the most powerful women in wine, recognition that was swiftly followed by her accolade as the drinks business Woman of the Year 2013.
One notable element within her glowing citation for this latter award was a sense of not just how well respected Jewell is among her peers, but – unusually for someone who wields such influence, especially in the often criticised supermarket sector – how well liked. This friendly charisma is immediately evident in her response to the question of how it feels to have such a mind-boggling impact on what people around the world are drinking with their dinner tonight. “It’s very humbling,” she begins, before quickly admitting: “but it’s also great fun.” For all the corporate framework of a giant like Tesco, Jewell emphasises the freedom that comes with such an employer. “We can try things and have the scale that, if it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world.” At the same time, she acknowledges the enormous responsibility that comes when your buying power is so immense. “When Tesco puts out a tender it can have quite an influence on price,” she remarks, throwing in the startling statistic: “We buy around 10% of all Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.”
Jewell becomes even more conscious of the “scary” effect a customer like Tesco can have on smaller regions, such as Châteauneuf du Pape, where “we hoovered up quite a bit before Christmas”. Nevertheless, she counters the inevitable external criticism that accompanies such clout with an emphasis on Tesco’s commitment to “using our scale for good”. This ranges from raising money for charity to more direct initiatives for the local community, such as helping with emergency supplies and financial aid when Thailand was hit by severe floods in 2011.
￼Biog: Laura Jewell MW
• 1995-2000: wine buyer at UK wholesalers Waverley Vintners
• 2000-2005: wine buyer at Sainsbury’s.
• 2005-2009: agency director at UK importer HwCg, heading up the winemaking and technical team
• 2009-2010: wine trade controller for Spar UK. Won Retail Buyer of the Year at The Drinks Business Awards 2010
• Sept 2010-present: senior wine product development manager for Tesco.
• 2012: appointed chairman of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust
• May 2013: named Woman of the Year by the drinks business
Back at the commercial coal face, Tesco has been battling the sluggish economic conditions and declining volume wine sales of the UK market which, for all the retailer’s international reach, still accounts for 90% of its wine business. “We’re in growth – just,” Jewell reveals,
but notes the particularly stiff competition from the discount supermarkets, who have done such a good job of luring a new middle class customer base through their doors. Describing Tesco as “the broadest church” within the UK multiple retail sector, she insists: “It’s very
important we have a range that reflects that.” As a result, she says of the competition, “We’re very aware of what they’re doing, but very confident that with 1,500 wines we have something for everyone.”
Within this range, a striking 22% of Tesco’s wine sales are now derived from its own label offering, which is split between an entry level “Simply” selection and the more ambitious, adventurous “Finest*” brand. They’re also an important part of the retailer’s wine offer in its international stores. While Tesco in Hungary may have a buyer on the ground feeding customers’ demand for local wines, this predominantly domestic range will be rounded out by centrally sourced own label offerings. Meanwhile the retailer’s South Korean outlets currently stock 50 wines from the Finest selection and are expected to sell half a million bottles of this label in the year ahead. Indeed, it is this Finest range, currently 133-lines strong, which Jewell highlights as being particularly rewarding. “The business would say there’s a lot more scope in Finest and I think there is,” she remarks. “We’ve been pushing up the price points a bit and doing more limited parcels at the top end with £20-30 wines, but we’re also looking for the next one million bottle wine.” With this last comment, Jewell refers to the Tesco Finest Fiano, whose runaway success has proved the ability of own label to coax consumers a long way from their varietal comfort zone in a way that most brands have failed to do, or never even attempted. The rise of own label has certainly sounded alarm bells for the many big brand owners who rely on supermarkets to shift the required volumes. Nevertheless, insists Jewell, “It’s not so much about taking brands off shelf, but encouraging brands to do better.” What’s more, she acknowledges, “They have upped their game,” although the response has tended to vary by country.
Taking California for example, Jewell notes: “Own label is a lot less prevalent and they don’t really need to export so why would they go through the hoops we set up?” By contrast, she highlights the “huge opportunity” this route offers a country like France, where there is strong customer loyalty to certain regions.
Indeed, thanks to the insights gleaned from its Clubcard scheme by the retailer’s data analysis subsidiary Dunhumby, Tesco has an alarmingly clear picture of exactly where those loyalties lie. “Quite often it’s stopped us delisting something,” reveals Jewell, picking out apparently disparate examples such as Portuguese rosé, Corbières, hock and even a certain French brand with a distinctively shaped bottle which are all sacrosanct to customers.
Another area proving particularly successful for Tesco’s wine division is the exploding online marketplace. A report from Wine Intelligence at the end of last year suggested that the UK’s online wine market is now worth £800 million – compared to £170m as recently as 2005 – with the result that this sector now accounts for 11% of the country’s total wine sales. While a number of major retailers have been slow to join this race, Tesco enjoyed record pre-Christmas online sales in 2013 with a 29% uplift on the same period in 2012 for its Wine by the Case website and as much as 51% for its wine selection on Tesco.com. What’s more, Jewell feels there remains further scope for improvement. “It’s not as integrated as we’d like it to be yet,” she remarks of the relationship between the two websites. However, once again the Dunhumby data gives Tesco an important advantage in how it appeals to its customer base. “We can be minutely targeted with the offers we send out,” remarks Jewell, noting that it is those personalised emails sent to groups as small as 1,000 people which are rewarded with a “much bigger uptake.”
On top of this Clubcard information comes the significant volume of direct feedback offered by customers, whether via social media or Tesco’s well- established wine fair line up. The five events held last year attracted around 15,000 people, a figure expected to increase this year as the London fair occupies the larger space of Earls Court.
Stressing the value of this chance for her product development team to talk to their end consumers, Jewell says: “People tell you exactly what they do and don’t like.”
As with an increasing number of major wine retailers today, this product development role is becoming a vital element of the Tesco buying department. Having just added Charlotte Lemoine to its ranks, the retailer now has a five- strong team of product developers who work in tandem with its nine buyers. Drawing a distinction between the two roles, Jewell describes her product developers as “the sorcerers” or “the sniffers and spitters” who work particularly closely with winemakers and cover a broader range of countries than the buying team. Meanwhile the buyers’ role is more concerned with the commercial nitty gritty and administrative work required to get the wine physically onto the shelf, with relationships focused primarily on national account managers.
However, notes Jewell, “We do the insight together.” She stresses: “It’s a really strong relationship.”
Looking ahead, the Tesco team is anticipating strong customer demand in two key areas in 2014, neither of which is new, but both of which offer plenty of room for manoeuvre: “refreshing whites” and Malbec. While the former category remains dominated by Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, Jewell’s team is taking inspiration from the UK on-trade to nudge customers towards something “a little bit more interesting” such as Albariño or even Pecorino. As for Malbec, she classes this in the marketing term of a “need state”, a basic requirement without substitute, and maintains: “There’s a lot further it can go, both in Argentina and in France too.”
Winning the db Woman of the Year award
Another current focus for the Tesco team is building on momentum from the 1.5m bottles of Prosecco which flew through its checkouts last year. Those worried about the alarmingly cheap deals which have accompanied this category’s success may be pleased to note that Tesco is instead casting its gaze upmarket with plans to introduce a single vineyard Cartizze to its Finest range. Italy also tops Jewell’s prediction as the most likely source of her next million-bottle wine. “It’ll probably be an Italian red, something fresh and juicy at the £7.99-9.99 level; something like a Frappato,” she ventures.
As for the challenges on the horizon, for all the talk and subsequent launches centred on the lower alcohol wine category, this remains a problematic area. “I don’t think the trade is looking at lower alcohol in the right way,” suggests Jewell. “We all have a range of lower alcohol and no alcohol wines because we should and we will continue to do so, but what we’re finding it is they’re appealing to a very different consumer base.” Aligning this corner of the industry with “fruity” products such as Lambrini, flavoured ciders or the “amazing” French brand Rosé Pamplemousse, she argues: “Yes, there’s a customer out there who needs a lower alcohol option for whatever reason, but to me the excitement is in the flavours and that’s what I’m working on.” One important barrier linked to this issue is the way these lower alcohol wines are displayed, often a long way from other drinks with a similar flavour profile.
“At some stage we will have a ‘fruity’ section in our store,” confirms Jewell. Once the wines are in a better position to fly off the shelves, she also enthuses about encouraging people to enjoy wine over ice, saying: “Let’s stop being snobbish.”
Despite this criticism of the industry, as her WSET role indicates, Jewell remains a very active force for improvement within it. “I like to think I give stuff back to the industry that has supported me and I would always encourage women within the trade,” she remarks.
Reflecting on her own achievements and efforts to break down a gender barrier, which she admits is far weaker now than when she first joined the trade 20 years ago, Jewell concludes: “I wouldn’t say there was a glass ceiling, but it’s still very male dominated and we need that to change.” Spoken like a true db Woman of the Year.