Despite the growth of online retail, many brick-and-mortar stores still exist. I went wine shopping at boutique stores in the Cape and discovered how the experience embraces the senses and awakens the imagination.
Stephen Ogden-Barnes, a retail industry consultant in Australia, writes about the importance of increasing the sensory and hedonic appeal of retail environments if they are to survive, saying, ‘This has strategic significance for the ‘new wave’ of independent niche retailers and franchise operations who are seeking to capitalise on the slowdown in mass retail markets by creating smaller and more focused market offers. In order to connect effectively with consumers who may be disaffected by the retail ‘blandscape’, developing deep skills in both consumer psychology and in innovative sensory retailing tools and technologies are essential, especially if the competitive cornerstones of the retail offer are based neither on price nor location.’
Boutique wine stores are growing in number in South Africa, an indication that there is still very much a demand for bricks and mortar stores. When viewed alongside Ogden-Barnes’s comments, their success could very well relate to the sensory experience involved in shopping for wine. And in stores that offer wine tastings – as most do – all five senses are engaged during the shopping experience, something that online retailers don’t achieve.
Vaughan Johnson, owner of the eponymously named store at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, offers wines for sale online in addition to running a store. Vaughan says that a problem with online sales is the cost of getting wine from city to city. It is a limiting factor that has to be solved before online sales increase. Vaughan believes that at the moment, South Africa offers the most extraordinary value for money in relation to wine quality in the world.
Vaughan says that large retailers don’t offer a personalised service. In his shop and others like it, there is always somebody available who can advise customers. The most expensive wine is not necessarily the first choice. It is up to the staff to know the stock intimately and to have an idea what customers want.
In terms of sourcing stock, Vaughan tends to go with a core of good quality long-term producers, but says that there are always new people every year – ‘new producers or farms that come up with stunning wines that were unknown and represent a really interesting dimension that has not been exploited before. So we have got to keep the range fresh; it never stays the same; we are constantly changing, evolving and introducing new wines.’
I ask Vaughan what wine he would choose if he was to be stranded on a desert island forever, with an unlimited supply of only one wine. He doesn’t commit to one wine, but says something from Bordeaux would do – say a Château Pichon-Lalande, Lafite Rothschild or Latour.
Wine Cellar in Observatory, an importer of fine wines, is not a store, but does hold wine tasting evenings and values the personal connection with customers. Roland Peens, manager and shareholder says that he would love a store, but he is kept busy with the many aspects of his business, which include cellaring, a brokerage service, fine wine tastings and a shipping service. He says, ‘It is great to interact with customers one-on-one. We do that at our tastings and also when customers come in to pay accounts or collect wine, or when we deliver. Then there is a nice interface of selling and talking about wine.’
Cellaring is a big part of Roland’s business, and it dovetails nicely with importing wine. Much of the wine that they sell is not ready to drink, and customers don’t have the storage space required. The wine is sold to them; it goes straight into the cellar, and they can withdraw it when it is ready.
Roland says, ‘We do a lot of tastings. We feel that the South African market is very uneducated, not only when it comes to imported wine, but local wine as well. We hold tastings of the wines from the “young guns”- the young South African winemakers who are pushing the boundaries and making cutting edge wines.’ And where imported wines are concerned, he says, ‘We find it very difficult for a customer to come and buy a Gigondas, Pauillac or a Bearn Romanée if they don’t know what it is.’
Roland says that many South African distributors are not sufficiently educated with regard to fine wine, particularly when it comes to vintage, which they don’t consider to be an important aspect of the wine. Roland says that their average consumer is well-informed, but they are trying to tap into the less-informed consumer and educate them through newsletters, tastings and Facebook. He says, ‘The more informed your customer is, the easier your job is – you can sell wine on its inherent character rather than on its name or score.’
After toying with Romanée-Conti La Tâche 1978, Roland chooses Château Rayas 1990 as his desert-island wine – ‘the greatest wine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and possibly the world – so real, effortless, elegant and just amazing.’
Caroline’s Fine Wines
Caroline Rillema, owner of Caroline’s Fine Wines, says that most of her purchasers are regular customers. She does offer wines online, but even then, many of the online customers have been into our store and dealt with the staff prior to moving to purchasing online.
When I asked why she has a store, Caroline replies, ‘Because I have been established for so long, I would hate to give all this up, but if I were starting five years ago, I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of building a shop at huge expense, signing a five-year lease. But, because we have already done it and we have a long lease and it works so well for us, it also gives us a lot of credibility. People know that we really do exist and can come here if they want to. That gives the website a lot of power.’
Caroline says that the most enjoyable aspect of her job is being surrounded by all the vinous gems of the world. She says that boutique stores differ from the large retailers by providing a personal touch and detailed information, both on the floor and over the telephone.
Caroline relates an amusing story in which a German tourist came into the store looking for a South African Chardonnay called ‘Bitch’ and a Shiraz called ‘Dude’. He was adamant that those wines existed and that he had seen them before. Caroline took him over to the Chardonnays and said that she had one called ‘Fat Bastard’, and that there was also a Shiraz with that name. He exclaimed with delight: ‘Ah – that’s the one!’ and happily made his purchases.
Caroline believes that stores will always be around: ‘Wine is an atmosphere thing. People like to pick up the bottle and look at it and think about whether to buy it, while thinking about the provenance. On a website, even for me, buying wine is a little bit cold.’
For her desert-island wine, Caroline chooses a Gaja Barbaresco Costa Russi 1964.
Wine Concepts: Newlands
Mike Bampfield-Duggan, a veteran in the industry is part owner of Wine Concepts in Newlands. Mike and his business partner, Murray Giggens, first operated Wine Concepts from Mike’s restaurant, the Upper Crust. More space was required to service their many customers, including the Blue Train (a contract which they still have today), and Wine Concepts moved first to the Castle, and then 11 years ago to Newlands. As well as the retail stores, Wine Concepts offers a wine list consulting service. To date, their clients have won over 100 wine list awards.
When asked what sets boutique stores apart from large retailers, Mike explains the necessity for people on the floor to talk customers through the myriad of wines that are on the shelves. Labels may be enticing, but without information, people tend to buy what they are comfortable with. Wine Concepts also advises on food and wine pairings, and Mike says that customers frequently bring in their menus for parties and weddings and ask for advice on which wines to serve.
The most pleasant aspect of Mike’s work is serving customers who return happy. He says, ‘We are in a community here and we are convenient. But even if convenient, we cannot be complacent.’ The most difficult aspect of his work is keeping up with the number of wines on the market. He says the store is inundated with samples. A minimum of five people rate the samples. Mike says that they are upfront and constructive with the feedback, which they give to every person that submits a sample.
As with any retail business, one encounters some characters. Mike relates an anecdote about a customer who walked up to the Cabernet Sauvignons and said that there was something wrong, because all Cabernet Sauvignons are white. In another incident, a bottle was returned by a customer because it was corked. Mike agreed with the customer, but the owner of the farm said the wine wasn’t corked, and the fault was caused by the way the wine was stored at Wine Concepts. The following day, the winemaker confirmed that the bottle was indeed corked and replaced it immediately.
A Wine Concepts store opened in Johannesburg in the Blubird Shopping centre in Birnam in May 2013.
For his desert-island wine, Mike chose Dom Ruinart Blanc De Blancs 1993
Wine Concepts: Kloof Street
Sue Proudfoot, part owner of the Wine Concepts store in Kloof Street, says, ‘Our aim is to get more people to drink better wine.’ Sue and husband Neil bought the franchise from the parent company in Newlands in 2004.
When asked why she chooses to run a store as opposed to an online outfit, Sue says that a store offers the personal touch. Online sites do not always display accurate information. In many instances, a description of a wine is carried over from one vintage to the next, and every vintage is different. Sue says that there are not enough speciality stores yet for there to be much competition, and as a result, the stores have good relationships with one another.
Sue says that what sets boutique stores apart from large retailers is wine knowledge, wine selection and customer service: ‘We are in business today because of our extremely high standard of customer service. It is not negotiable.’
The most pleasant aspect of Sue’s work is the instant gratification of seeing satisfied customers: ‘A customer comes in, we recommend something, explain about the producer, the philosophy and the ethos of the wine, and the customer walks out satisfied. We have wines for all occasions, palates and levels of knowledge. Each wine has its story.’
Sue’s desert-island wine: Simonsig CWG Cuvée Chêne Blanc de Blancs (MCC) 2004.
Shirley Griffiths, manager of Vino Pronto, says that online purchasing is definitely growing, but a lot of people are still quite tactile when it comes to wine. They want to look at the labels, discuss and taste the wine.
Shirley says that large retailers don’t offer personal attention. In a store, you get to know the customers, as well as their likes and dislikes. She says that shops will always exist due to the nature of people.
Shirley relates an anecdote: Bon Cap produced a braille label. A customer touched the label and asked what the raised bumps were for. Shirley explained that the raised bumps were braille. Without missing a beat, the customer said: ‘Oh, is that for the blind tasting?’
Shirley’s choice of desert-island wine is Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
Wine@the Mill is owned by Tanya Becker and Nigel Cattermole, who has been in the wine industry for 35 years. The store does have an online offering and is entering its third year of operation. Tanya explains that Nigel had the idea of opening a wine warehouse that concentrated on the smaller top-producing estates. For that they needed a venue that would work, and the Biscuit Mill provided the perfect opportunity, with plenty of foot trade, tourists and restaurants.
Tanya speaks of their passion for wine, saying, ‘The fact we have chosen the wines that we have, is to educate people about the different farms that are out there, and to recommend what suits your palate.’ Wine@the Mill also offers food and wine pairing advice. Tanya said that most of their return customers visit again because they liked the recommendations.
Tanya says that Wine@the Mill avoids brands. The wines they carry are either available in the store, on the farms, or in top restaurants and hotels. She says that Wine@the Mill is a specialist store offering a personal experience and top quality at affordable prices.
Wine@the Mill started with wines from 30 farms that Nigel knew well. There are now over 52 farms represented in the store, and the store carries each farm’s entire range. Tanya says, ‘People hear “boutique” and think that it is expensive, which it is not. We cater for everybody and we want people to realise that there are many different really good wines out there.’
Tanya opts for a first and second choice for her desert-island wine: Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir and Luddite Shiraz.
Norman Goodfellows: Cape Town
At the time of researching this article, Norman Goodfellows had just purchased Stephen Rom. The two stores are located in Three Anchor Bay and Kloof Street. Carrie Adams of Norman Goodfellows says to ‘watch this space.’
Stephen Ogden-Barnes, the retail consultant says, ‘For a low margin industry like retail, with high bricks and mortar investment and operating costs, getting the best out of the physical store is more important than ever. As illustrated, retail stores are essentially sensory blank canvases, upon which retailers can create their own picture of the engaged shopper. Understanding the subtleties of how the senses can be engaged through light, sound, touch, smell and taste, interwoven with brand architecture and intelligent promotional agendas will be essential, if retailers are to capitalise upon the potential of customers in-store. For retailers who embrace this sensory challenge, the future of bricks and mortar stores will be very different in the years ahead, but it will without doubt be a much brighter, more interesting and a more engaging future.’
Stephen Ogden-Barnes (Retail Industry Fellow, Deakin University & Danielle Barclay, Retail Consultant and General Manager, Retail Engine).
Wine Concepts hosts daily tastings with a different winery every day from 4pm to 7pm (Saturdays 11am to 2pm), and once a month a bigger tasting with a few different producers around a specific theme. For more details visit http://www.wineconcepts.co.za.
Vino Pronto holds tastings Thursday and Friday evenings from 5pm to 7pm. For details, visit http://www.vinopronto.co.za.
Wine@the Mill holds tastings every Saturday between 3pm and 5pm. Cathy Marston runs her introductory six-week wine course at the venue in winter. For more details on tastings, visit http://www.wineatthemill.com.
Caroline’s Fine Wines hosts wine tasting evenings on three Thursdays a month. For more details visit http://www.carolineswine.com.
Wine Cellar hosts a range of introductory, educational and advanced tastings, as well as gourmet wine-paired meals. For details visit: http://www.winecellar.co.za.