Wine trading on the web has so far failed to excite the majority of the pub trade - but the internet may still have something to tempt licensees who hope to improve their wine offer.
It would be fair to say that the licensed trade has not, so far, switched its wine buying online in any great quantities. Over the past couple of years, a number of business-to-business (B2B in webspeak) sites have come and gone.
Type in the web address of one site which set up shop in a blaze of publicity two years ago and you are met with the stark message "this account has been disabled - to have it restored, the maintainers of this site should contact customer service." That is, one fears, the online equivalent of your landlord changing the locks, throwing your clothes out in the street, and auctioning your hi-fi in lieu of unpaid rent.
At vitivio.com, launched last year, the message reads: "We are sad to inform you that due to the downturn in the internet economy, the vitivio.com website will cease trading from May 31 2001."
None of which looks too hopeful for any publican planning to buy wine online - and it would be stretching a point to blame the much-publicised failure of a series of e-commerce companies. The main reasons why wine trade websites have failed to capture much business from pubs are linked far more closely to the trade itself.
- Firstly, most pubs buy wine from either a dedicated drinks wholesaler, such as Matthew Clark, or a specialist linked to a major drinks supplier, such as Waverley, owned by Scottish Courage, or Percy Fox, part of Guinness UDV. Many are tied, and may only be able to choose from a restricted list of wines.
- Secondly, even those pubs which are free to source their own wine are unlikely to have the luxury of time to spend browsing online for wine bargains. Many prefer to work through a local or national wine merchant which is geared to the needs of the pub trade.
- Finally, but perhaps most importantly, many pubs are still not geared up to buy online.
The main opportunities for online wine sales probably come through services such as Bass Brewers' barbox.com. These online versions of established on-trade suppliers understand on-trade buying and ordering patterns.
However, for a publican interested in finding out more about wine, improving the customer experience and growing his business in the first place, putting aside a little time to browse the online sites probably won't be a wasted effort. As always with the wine community, there is no shortage of news and information available, from tasting notes to the weather updates which help connoisseurs to predict the quality of next year's vintages.
Publicans sometime discover that wine merchants find it difficult to deal with smaller quantity orders, and for a more expensive wine a pub may initially want to invest in just a case or two, to gauge customer interest. This may be where the wine websites come into their own.
At the end of the day, however tempting the occasional online bargain might seem, you have to consider whether any of the wine websites have an offer compelling enough to make it worth cutting off relations with your current supplier - and losing the marketing, promotional and training support you may also be getting.
The way forward is almost certainly for existing suppliers to develop their online offers so that it provides the convenience of online ordering, while maintaining the support packages which helps pubs develop their wine business.
Wine sales websites
If you're considering buying online, a look at the following sites will give you an idea of what's involved.
Majestic Wine Warehouse already believes that quite a number of publicans stock up at its stores, which are pitched at wholesales prices for the general public, selling wines by the case. The offers on its website follow the same pattern.
An auction site which set out to specialise in wine, QXL was actively marketing its offer to publicans a year or so ago. There are a few by-the-case offers which might prove tempting. Auction sites work by asking you to register the maximum price you would be willing to pay, and have proved quite addictive to some users - don't get tempted into a bidding war.
The online service established by Bibendum, a renowned London wine merchant, it is a good source or quality wines. It sources some wines for supermarkets, which gives it a good understanding of changing consumer tastes. Its wines are frequently reviewed in the weekend press, which means that interested customers will recognise the wines on your list.
The website of the London International Vintners Exchange, this is a trade site set up to serve the market for fine wines. Its main customers are likely to be the type of restaurant where any customer who asks the price of the wine probably can't afford to eat there, and wine merchants buying to resell. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting browse.
Like most successful wine sites, the virgin offer is primarily geared to sell directly to consumers. However, the cost of some of its wine-by-the-case deals compare favourably with the prices charged by wine merchants, and the wines themselves are carefully selected to appeal to current consumer tastes. Virgin has recently linked up with online retailer Amazon to provide a wine offer.
Probably the best of the supermarket wine sites, a browse around the Waitrose site will give you an insight into which wines your customers are drinking at home - and once again, if you compare the price of some of its bin end offers to the wholesale price you're paying, you might be tempted.