"One of the most difficult things about wine is it can be really intimidating," says Jay Wright, CEO of Virgin Wines. "You go into the supermarket and there's hundreds of bottles and most people stick to the brands, but that's not the beauty of wine, that's not what we're all about."

Wright describes how Virgin Wines hopes to solve this problem, saying both a novice and a connoisseur can come to the website to learn and purchase good wines. Using customer ratings, wine advisors and personalisation techniques, the eCommerce company has sold to over 500,000 customers in the last four years, while 190,000 of its customers have purchased more than once in the last 12 months.

Meanwhile, the company's 34 wine advisors are at its customers' beck and call, with 34,000 wine shoppers choosing to engage with this free service. "It's like having your personal sommelier on the end of the phone," explains Wright, who says some customers want a 1:1 relationship with their advisor who almost becomes their friend, others just want the online service, while most have a few quick questions about buying wine. "You might have people coming round and you're serving Stroganoff and you don't know what to serve from your wine rack.

"We know what you like and can match your tastes, it's the idea that you will never get a bottle that is not to your liking."

Bespoke wine

As well as having a wine advisor's direct phone number so they can ask questions about grape varieties to their heart's content, the wine the customer ends up receiving has even been personalised to the palettes of Virgin Wines drinkers.

Wright describes how the business uniquely gets involved in the wine making and using customer information and data from ratings, the wine buyers can make new wines specifically suited to the tastes of Virgin Wines customers.

"When our wine buyers want to make a new Sauvignon from Languedoc, they will look at the last 250 ratings and work out exactly what our customers like and dislike, and then go off and make the wine – stylistically bespoking wine to our customer base, rather than bringing in wine we hope they will like."

In 2008, the company's wine ratings were an average of 3.6 out of 5, whereas now the rating is 4.1. "You don't need too many ones to screw up your ratings," notes Wright.

Personalisation is an important strategy for Virgin Wines, but the business can't rely heavily on customers to spend time filling out lengthy questionnaires about each bottle. Instead, customers can give a star rating and have the option to write additional comments.

"They're feeding back information about what they like and don't like all the time and we incentivse them with a free bottle in their next order – the more they tell us the better our service."

Every Monday morning, Wright sits down with his wine buyers and goes through all the customer comments. "It's an important part of our job, really understanding what they love and what they don't," he says, describing how some weeks they have to go through 3,000 comments. "But it's worth the time and the effort."

New website for the new year

Personalisation plans to feature heavily in Virgin Wine's new website which will launch next Spring. Wright says the homepage will be personalised depending on how you've rated previous wines.

"If you’ve bought a Shiraz twice in the past year and given it a five star rating and we have a special offer, it will be on your homepage. We want to make sure you are seeing things you love rather than a generic homepage. But our systems don't do that now."

Wright says the more transactional and browsing data the company gains on its customer, the better it can be at personalising the shopping experience.

"People come back time and time again, they're rating and reordering their favourite bottles. It's not like Amazon when you buy a pram and get nothing but prams recommended to you even though you don't need one," explains Wright, noting how when Virgin Wines understands your favourite bottles it can recommend similar styles, varieties or regions.

This is all part of Virgin Wines' systems overhaul in order to upgrade its website and IT systems. The business launched the original website using Blue Martini software in 2000 and has been developing on top of this ever since.

"It's a bit of a legacy system now which has been coded upon coded on and it's a big bowl of spaghetti, where if we change one thing, something else we did in 2003 breaks," he explains.

The e-tailer is working with Mantiki software to redevelop its IT systems to make the company's internal functionality more efficient. The new website will allow Virgin Wines to segment data better, as well as combine all aspects of the business including its savings club, WineBank, and allow customers to build their own Wine Libraries.

Wright says he wants to create a website which is slick and easy to use whether you want to quickly reorder your favourite case in 20 seconds, or spend hours learning more about wine by reading reviews and watching videos of wine buyers tasting new varieties.

Mobile

After the website is completed, the next task is to launch a mobile app which will allow customers to easily rate their wines. "When you're sat on the sofa for the evening, enjoying your wine, you want to be able to sit there and rate it, put your comments in or reorder really easily," explains Wright. "We don't have an app, but we do need one."

Wright comments that while consumers did not stop buying wine during the recession, now we have climbed our way out he is seeing shoppers more willing to trade up in terms of bottle price. The e-tailer made a sparkling £4.3 million profit for its latest financial year ending 3 July 2015, while sales grew 13% to £40 million.

"The rise of Aldi and Lidl being in the very low end of the market has dragged the supermarkets down in the world leaving a big space for us to sell really good quality wine at an affordable price," explains Wright.

"There are a lot of people out there who love decent wine and want to try new things and want the whole service to go with it," he says. "It's that bit of the market which is substantial and has really opened up, people are happy to spend £8-£9 on life's pleasures – three quid more than the average £5 [supermarket bottle] is just fantastic. And at the moment, we're people more people wanting to trade up."

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