Covid-19: Drinks retailers canning it online in times of crisis

After supermarket shelves were stripped bare of toilet rolls and hand sanitiser shoppers switched their attention to alcohol, which pushed in-store sales of booze up 22% in March according to Kantar, and also led to an alcoholic buying spree online.

This not only set online sales records for many specialist beer and wine retailers, but also resulted in them struggling to cope with availability issues and massive delivery volumes while implementing social distancing practices within their warehouses.

Berry Bros & Rudd temporarily stopped taking orders after its biggest ever day of digital sales; Naked Wines and Laithwaites closed their businesses to new customers for a period; Virgin Wines reduced its range online; Roberson extended its delivery service from next-day to three-five working days after enjoying online sales up 1,000% in March; and Aldi also extended its delivery time-frames as well as limiting customers to only six bottles of any single wine within an order.

Sarah Evans, chairman of The Wine Society, says the temporary closure was the first time in the 146-year history of The Society that it had stopped taking orders. “At the first announcement of lockdown on March 23, it was immediately evident to us that, without some significant changes to the way we work, our warehouse teams could not work in a safe way.”

Having successfully implemented changes within its warehouse, she says: “The team's first task is to clear the backlog of orders generated in the weeks leading up to our closure. We will work as quickly as possible to clear this backlog. We are committed to opening for new orders as quickly as we can. This is likely to be during the Easter weekend and will be a reduced service.”

Changing business strategy overnight

Lucy Driver, founder of South Downs Cellars, that comprises two shops and a wholesale business, says she had to overnight redefine her workforce’s roles having been forced to close the two shops and the wholesale business that supplied restaurants and bars. She assigned them to the online shop that was experiencing an incredible increase in online sales. Previously she was able to handle all online sales herself but now has four people helping her and has also hired a second van for deliveries, which are free within a 10-mile radius for orders over £50.

“Within hours of the lockdown the orders flowed in. It was like a torrent and we had a steep learning curve to cope with it. The phone orders from regular customers were the equivalent of our store sales and the web was in complete meltdown. We’re now taking more sales online on each single day than we took in the whole of December,” she explains.

Although Driver says the loss of the wholesale business is a “big hole to fill” she calculates the company is likely performing better overall because sales are at retail margin and she is paid immediately for orders.

Switching orders from pubs to homes

There is also an equally big hole to fill for breweries, especially the smaller operators who typically supply the bulk of their products to pubs and bars. Like many, London-based brewers, Howling Hops has switched its focus to solely selling cans via its online store, which has enjoyed a serious increase in trade since lockdown.

Chris Hall, head of marketing at Howling Hops brewery, says: “The increase in demand has been massive – along the lines of the lyric 'Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day'. We've seen a pretty big uptick in new online shop customers – but I think a lot of them are actually our local regulars at our bar [in East London] and people who have bought our beers in pubs. It's such a scary time and it's amazing to know that the people who enjoy our beer have got our backs, and want to throw us a lifeline.”

He says the online shop has been able to cope as a result of a streamlining the offering thereby maximising efficiency. “This has involved being flexible in what we put in our mixed cases, based on availability of stock, and better use of time on every part of the order life-cycle,” explains Hall.

Howling Hops has been particularly fortunate in having its own canning line, as opposed to having to outsource to other people’s equipment, which gives it great flexibility. It can efficiently plan its brewing around the current situation for the forthcoming weeks in order to ensure it meets consumer demand and brews beers most suitable to canning.

On the other side of the ongoing lockdown, Hall questions whether the beer industry will ever be the same again. “It's easy to predict a huge swell of on-trade [pub and bar] sales – but I think, or rather hope, that consumers will have a more keen understanding and appreciation of the difficulties faced by the craft beer sector and that amazing beer will hopefully be truly cherished and less taken for granted!” he says.

Driver also predicts some potential changes post-coronavirus as some of those customers new to buying online hopefully continue with this practice and do not return to buying [some of their wine] from the major supermarkets.

“In 17 years we’ve some customers who’ve never bought online from us before. I hope a small percentage of them now see how easy it is compared with going to the supermarket and convert to doing it in the long-term,” she says.