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Q&A: Alliance Wine on-trade sales director Miriam Spires

db caught up with Miriam Spiers of Alliance Wine to see how the fine wine supplier has been faring after the challenges of the pandemic, what the secret to success is, and what the future holds.

How has your first full financial year since the pandemic been?

Surprisingly good. I say surprisingly as we had been conservative in our budgeting and targets when lockdown ended in summer 2021 and the on-trade finally had a chance to re-open fully. We couldn’t see the trade recovery being instant and I think we have been proved right that it is going to take several years before we see a return to where we were.

That said, we had a great year, working with our on-trade customers closely proved beneficial and the other sales channels in the business thrived so we ended the year around £45 million revenue, growth of 45%, which is probably our best year of trading since the business was founded in 1984.

How do you account for this strong result?

Hard work and agility in adversity is the best way to describe it. We have always operated that way, in the 2008/09 [the financial crisis] we reacted in a similar way and used what we like to call our ‘crystal clear strategy’ to redirect our efforts into the right sales channels to get effective sales to support the business as a whole. We were able to adjust our focus and continue to work hard to survive and succeed.

We also didn’t sit on our hands, we made the most of the down time to plan with the on trade teams to work out what would happen when we all came out the other side. We created a cross-function working group to prepare for the comeback and to see how things would be different, and most importantly how we could support our customers. Thankfully our plans were right, and the working group is now an integral part of our ongoing on-trade planning. We emerged stronger and were ready to deal with the challenges.

That said, it has been a real team effort from all aspects of the business and from all sales channels to really work with our customers to ensure they got the right wine at the right time. We listened to what our customers needed. When the pandemic hit we lost about 80% of our business as the on-trade closed. Knowing when they re-opened they would be facing a raft of challenges, we didn’t hassle them, instead we tried to understand what they needed and how we could help.

It wasn’t a time for pushing loads of new wines at people, it was a time to see what they needed from us and us delivering it. Which is what we did. We exceeded our targets and our strategy seems to have paid dividends and we are really proud to think we helped our customers, many of whom we have worked with for years, get back up on their feet and start trading again.

Do you think listening is enough? Do you not have to be more pro-active?

Absolutely. Listening is only the beginning, we knew we had to do this at the start, but now it’s about working closely with the on-trade to make sure they can sell as much wine as possible at the right price, at a decent margin for them and that their customer is getting a great experience.

We always say that we are here to sell wine, and also to sell ‘how to sell wine’. We are the specialists, we don’t sell beer, spirits or water; we are wine merchants and our customers should rightly look to us for advice and guidance on how to sell their wine.
They know their business very well, hospitality is complicated and has many moving parts. Wine is just one of them, what we try to ensure is that we are there to drive wine sales as hard as possible, to fine tune this aspect to ensure it helps push the business on and creates much needed revenue.

I think a lot of the wine trade is happy to sell wine, proud of the products they have, but then leave it very much in the hands of their customers who just don’t have the time to devote to work out how these wines can work for them. This is just doing half the job, in our opinion. Especially after the pandemic things have changed and I am not sure the trade has woken up to that. We need to do more.

Are you saying that the industry is failing hospitality?

No, that’s a bit dramatic, but as an industry we aren’t doing everything we could be to ensure that wine gets a fair crack of the whip, in terms of a fair share of focus in a hospitality business or that it is making the money it potentially could.

We have always held up the commercial side of selling wine, right through to the end consumer and we have more recently been crystalising this work to share it more coherently in partnership with our customers to ensure wine pulls its weight. Our on-trade working group has been integral in this and all aspects and channels of the business have benefited.

It’s fine to be offering WSET training, free glasses, tent cards and incentive trips to producers, but it’s all dancing around the edges of what is important. Making sure that the wine that a customer lists is going to sell, they have the skills and tools to sell it and that everyone benefits: the customer, the consumer, the producer and us. Doing what the trade has always done is not good enough. Hospitality deserves more.

What does that look like in practice?

We have various initiatives that we offer customers that are commercially orientated. We have always had these but again through the working group we have started to coalesce them and make it more of a coherent offering.

One of the more sought after commercial activities is our wine list workshops were we take a small group of customers and spend a morning dissecting their wine lists, talking over what is truly important and what the point of their wine list is.
Fundamentally, it is the most important selling tool they have – if they don’t have a sommelier or wine waiter. Even then it can be very helpful in guiding shy customers to the right wines and hopefully upsell them to something that will make their meal memorable.

This is just a part of our commercial training program, which has various further steps in it that we offer customers so we work as closely as we can with them to ensure that at every point they are selling wine in the right way. It involves audits, reviews and recommendations and then active support on implementing it all. It’s all about tweaking things to get better results.

How are you dealing with the challenges you are facing at the moment?

Cost of living is a great concern for everyone, staff shortages are constant, utility costs are sky rocketing for customers and dry goods and shipping are an ever present challenge for us. We are trying to help manage them all, and keep all the plates spinning smoothly to ensure good service and support. For example, I am glad to say that our stock availability has not dipped below 97% since the pandemic ended, but it is something we have to work hard at every single day to ensure wines are available to our customers.

There is always opportunity whatever the prevailing conditions and we have been battered by different economic storms over the last decade or so, most recently with Brexit and the pandemic. This is when our agility and flexibility pays off as we work closely with our customers whatever their circumstances. Focusing on them and working commercially with them, making sure that their wine offering is doing its part and contributing to the profitability of their business is exactly what we should be doing. We have to ensure average spend is up even if volume is down.

So is the future bright or gloomy?

I know better than to predict the economic weather, but we are confident that we are working in the right way to grow alongside our customers whatever the short term might bring and continue to offer them great wines, but also solutions to sell those wines in the best way possible.

To find out more about Alliance Wine, click here.

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