Get web-savvy for wine bargains
As more of us go online, so does the wine, finds Ned Halley.
Buying wine by the case for home delivery is still a minority sport. Fewer than one in five of us has ever done it. But these days, it pays to give it a try, because the best wines, and the best bargains, are moving online.
Partly it's to do with the supermarkets. The margins on most of the wines sold in stores are being squeezed between rising taxes and a reluctance by customers to pay higher prices. As the profitability of wine shrinks, so will the space devoted to it in stores. The shelves can be better employed moving faster-selling, higher-margin goods.
But the supermarkets don't want to miss out on profits from wine. Tesco, by a mile the biggest retailer of wine (one in every four bottles sold retail in Britain), is already selling 10% of its wine via the tesco.com website. Just 10% maybe, but Tesco's size is such that this relatively small part of its business nevertheless accounts for about half of all the wine sold online in the UK.
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And the giant is now running an intriguing scheme called "co-buying" which allows online customers to group together jointly to order wines at usefully reduced prices. The website nominates cases of wines as candidates for group purchases, and if enough subscribers indicate a wish to buy, the price is lowered.
Recent co-buy deals have included the delicious Rioja Viña Pomal Centenario Crianza 2009, sold at £36 per six-bottle case, cut from the list price of £54, and a seriously good Australian red, Wirra Wirra Church Block 2009, down from £69 to £45. Classic wines are included in the deals too. Sixes of New Zealand's cult white Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012 lately went for an unheard-of £84, against the usual retail price of £126.
These are real deals on real wines, not supermarket trickery of the kind that involves the notional pricing of £5 wines at £10 in order to offer them later at half price. These practices are, in fairness, now quite quickly disappearing thanks to a recent agreement between the leading retailers and the Office of Fair Trading to phase them out.
Savvy shoppers can look forward to a more genuine discount culture, especially online.
Nick Juby, who sources wine for tesco.com, is certainly pleased with the way the co-buy scheme has gone so far this year.
"It's about getting customers together and it has been very exciting," he says. "In the past few months several thousand have joined the co-buy community."
Wine is the only product, so far, to be sold in this way, but if it is catching on as it appears to be, expect developments. For details of the scheme, enter "co-buy tesco wine" into your search engine to see the admirably lucid guide to the process. You pay a fee of £1 to make each purchase, and if you recruit friends into joining in to make a purchase you might win a case of the wine. "Whoever brings the most other people into a co-buy," the website declares, "gets their product for free!"
While no other supermarket has yet (as far as I know) launched anything similar, Tesco's competitors are certainly working hard to keep up. Morrisons has spent a fortune this year launching an entirely new online wine service, and Waitrose Wine Direct this month is offering a 15% discount to first-time customers who order a case or more – any mix of wines or spirits – costing £120 upwards, with free delivery within three working days.
Rather to my surprise, neither Asda nor Sainsbury's yet have a dedicated online wine service, but both will deliver wines ordered in the way of any other groceries from the stores. Now that morrisonscellar.com (10% off your first order, by the way) is well under way, I wonder how long these two rivals will be able to stay out of the loop.
Marks & Spencer has had its own wine website for as long as I can remember. And for just as long, it seems to me, they've been offering large discounts off store prices if you buy just a couple of six-bottle cases. Last time I looked, the website had headline reductions of up to 40 per cent off some wines by the case, and 25% off a number of pre-mixed cases. It makes you think you'd be mad ever to buy wine in an M&S store, where the discounts seem very modest, and very few.
Not so at Majestic, where the discounts are all the same, in store or online. Majestic has always been a by-the-case retailer, and bases its perpetual price deals on the buy-two-bottles-pay-less principle. It has clearly worked for this unique enterprise, now with nearly 200 warehouse-style stores right round the nation.
The Majestic website is slick and easy to operate, but it is in effect little more than a link with the branches, as your order will be delivered to you from the store nearest to where you live. Minimum order is six bottles, and delivery is free if you're spending £40 upwards. Like Tesco, Majestic sells about 10 per cent of its wine to online customers.
The Wine Society, I understand, now does 60% of its business online. This seems a remarkable development for an operator founded in 1874 as a thoroughly gentlemanly, non-profit-making mutual society aiming to bring decent wines to aspiring enthusiasts whose modest budgets were beneath the notice of lordly Victorian merchants.
These days, as I have reported before on this page, the Wine Society has an astonishing range of wines, competively priced at every level. It doesn't really do discounts, except on pre-mixed cases, but it doesn't need to. The society has no shops, just a humungous warehouse in Berkshire. This helps keep the prices down. Orders are still taken, I'm glad to say, by post (there is a comprehensive printed catalogue issed four times a year) and telephone.
The only other comparable online wine operation is Laithwaites, which after decades as a strictly mail-order business has lately been opening its own chain of a dozen shops, including one in Gloucester.
Does Tony Laithwaite, who founded this company back in 1969 under the name Bordeaux Direct, know something the rest of us don't?