Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

The 800 pound gorilla, aka UK supermarkets

If you want to see wine producers and importers get their knickers in a twist then ask them what it’s like trying to sell to the UK Supermarkets. It’s like your average guy trying to sleep with Kate Moss. Basically you’ve no hope, and so the best course of action is to slag her off.

UK Supermarkets account for a whopping 85% of all wine sold at retail. At least that was the figure back in 1998, it’s probably higher now. So effectively if you want to sell a serious amount of wine then off you go to see the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose etc. In the UK these Buyers have the keys to the kingdom. Kate, reincarnated as a wine buyer, but not nearly as hot.

I gleefully told my PDG that I had scored a rare appointment with Tesco. He scoffed, muttered “bon chance” and burst my bubble by adding it was a waste of time. I made some snarky comment about the French losing market share to the New World in the supermarkets and it set him off. His tirade, in translation, went something like this…

All that these supermarkets want is to grind you down for every last centime, demand listing fees and money for advertising and all kinds of other crap, then they clean you out of stock by purchasing thousands and thousands of cases so you have nothing left for your other clients, and then when the contract is up for renewal they take the next winery who comes along with a good deal and buy their wine instead, kicking you to the curb. Et en plus, some of these Buyers just came from the pet food department and know NOTHING about wine.

I’ve left out the swearing. He was so mad he was foaming at the mouth, obviously having been bitten by Carrefour in France too many times. But undeterred I still went to my meeting at Tesco. They were very polite and friendly, and I zeroed in on a particular petit chateau that seemed to be of slight interest. By the end of the meeting I better understood why the New World was taking over the market. I imagined the difference in conversation between me and Lindemans Bin 65 salesman, in front of the Tesco Buyer.

How much stock do you have of this wine?
Me: 2,000 cases and that’s it
Bin 65: As much as you want – it’s unlimited, we have it on tap in Australia.

What about the quality of the next vintage?
Me: We’re in Bordeaux so you never know.
Bin 65: It’s the same every year…

What about pricing next year?
Me: Can’t guarantee anything, and in Bordeaux things don’t like to go down…
Bin 65: Pricing is fixed, no problem

What about promotional support?
Bin 65: We can do “buy one bottle get one bottle free”
Me: ZERO, nada, at best I can give you a company corkscrew, but just one of them, specially for you.

Having subsequently been a Buyer for some large hotel and retail groups I can totally sympathize with the Supermarkets approach. You have the buying power, and you want to leverage it. But the one outcome that I have seen is that the small producer really doesn’t stand a chance, and yet these are the companies that often make the most exciting wines. So really the end consumer loses out. Instead, you see all the big brand names lining the shelves, and all you can think about is how much they paid in listing fees to get the sale. Feeling rejected and unappreciated, you can’t help but take a few shots at Kate.