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Indie retail: ‘consumers are coming back’

As Bibendum PLB’s independent retail and wholesale division prepares to start trading next month, Walker & Wodehouse Wines’ managing director Gareth Groves has highlighted the “positivity” in this sector.

Following the 2014 merger of UK drinks suppliers Bibendum and PLB, Walker & Wodehouse Wines joined the group as a dedicated division for the independent retail and regional wholesale sectors.

As of 1 June, Walker & Wodehouse will officially launch as a separate trading company headed by Gareth Groves, former marketing manager at Bibendum, who oversees the merchant’s own sales team and a 600-strong portfolio, of which half the lines are exclusive to this arm of the group.

Although it has only existed under its current name since 2009, Walker & Wodehouse was formed from John Harvey & Sons after US drinks giant Beam bought the business, kept its Sherry element and sold off the rest.

Explaining the group’s decision to strengthen its focus on the independent sector, Groves told the drinks business: “Bibendum had always worked hard in a cross-channel way, but it had become increasingly dominated by the on-trade in the last 10 years. We always under-indexed on the independent side because we had such a large private client business.”

This hurdle was removed in 2013 when Bibendum sold off its private client division to Cru London, removing any potential conflict of interest for the company that had previously stopped it from pursuing more business with the independent sector of the trade.

“The independents are a really important place to sell good quality wine,” remarked Groves. “The on-trade can do it but there are not many consumers taking those £20 shelf wines at £70-80 in a restaurant. If you want to sell good quality wine in the UK – and we do – then getting the independents right was vital.”

Setting out Walker & Wodehouse’s offer for the independent sector, Groves stated: “Our vision is really clear. We have a specialised team and portfolio – it absolutely makes sense.”

While emphasising the distinction between this division and its parent company, Groves highlighted the advantages of being part of a far larger group, from its experienced buying team headed by Andrew Shaw to extensive data and consumer insight access, and the economies of scale and flexibility of sharing a far larger supply chain. “We can bring products to market much more cheaply,” he remarked.

After nine years working on the marketing team for Bibendum, Groves welcomed his new role as “a chance to really go back to the product and work with so many of the great shops and people out there. If you’re going to run your own business then you don’t do that unless you’re passionate,” he remarked. “The sector has changed quite a bit recently but these are the people who can sell really good, interesting wines in the UK.”

Assessing the current health of the UK independent retail sector, Groves remarked: “The High Street is changing a lot but we’re seeing more shops opening and a positivity in the trade; consumers are coming back.”

In particular, he noted a shift in consumer’s shopping behaviour, observing: “There are lots of customers who will still go to a Tesco convenience store, but at the weekend they will go to their fishmonger, the local butcher and their wine merchant. As the supermarkets contract their supply base, my hope is that we will see more consumers drift out into the independents.”

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