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Anxious times for wine stores too

Wine stores and merchants have been hard hit by Covid too. However, like winemakers, those that have adapted to the new situation have managed to limit the damage. Arnaud Vaingre (Vinoteca in Luxembourg City) and Agnès and Sébastien Rouillaux (Craft et Compagnie also in Luxembourg City) look back at this difficult period, which has nevertheless also been a source of new opportunities.

Say what you like about it not being an essential item, a nice bottle of wine is a luxury people in Luxembourg struggle to do without. Nevertheless, the crisis prompted by the coronavirus pandemic has put wine merchants in a cold sweat. “We closed the shop on the evening of Monday 16 March and the entire team was furloughed,” says Arnaud, manager of Vinoteca on the corner of Place du Théâtre and Rue du Fossé in Luxembourg City. “To be honest, we were really concerned. We looked at the accounts to see how long we could keep going and were by no means sure we’d survive.”

The crisis also came as a very nasty shock for Agnès and Sébastien Rouillaux who set up Craft et Compagnie to distribute champagne produced by high-end independent estates. “In the first fortnight, everything ground to a halt … we didn’t receive a single order. It shook us up a bit … we didn’t sleep much for two weeks,” admits Agnès Rouillaux.

Given the lack of certainty on which to base their plans, the two companies desperately tried out various ideas to help them through these stressful times. Vinoteca drew on the power of the web, increasing its social media presence to promote its existing website. And it worked: “The first order came in on Sunday morning, which opened the floodgates to such an extent that after a week, Guy (editor’s note: Guy Tabourin, the store owner) and I were unable to manage things on our own! We contacted our delivery driver and initially requested two rounds per week … which quickly turned into weekly rounds.”

It was motivating too – customers were very positive about every delivery.

An ad in the Maison Moderne newsletter proved to be the catalyst for Craft et Compagnie. “We were offered the space and spent an entire weekend considering how to use it to best effect,” explains Agnès Rouillaux. “Sébastien and I came up with the idea of offering boxes of six different wines at a fixed price of €30 per bottle.” An initial selection was offered in April, followed by a second in May (rosé champagnes) and a third for summer with non-dosage champagnes. They were an immediate hit: “It was like a breath of fresh air that saved our company,” she says with relief.

The concept of wine boxes certainly proved successful during lockdown. Vinoteca tapped into this success: “We already offered them, but started bringing out new ones like the Lockdown Box, the Rosé Box which was a hit due to the warm weather, and the Home Office Box, a selection pack that companies could send as a gift to thank their homeworkers,” says Arnaud Vaingre. Also successful was a campaign run in partnership with a Spanish wine estate, one of Arnaud’s regular collaborators. “We ran a competition for which anyone buying a box of twelve bottles from this specific winemaker was automatically entered. The winner of a prize draw won a trip to visit the producer. The estate paid for the accommodation and meals, and we paid for the flights. It was a great idea – we had sufficient stock to sell 18 cases and sold all but one. The winemaker was delighted and so were we!”

Quality of service was key for both Vinoteca and Craft et Compagnie. In particular, free express delivery proved crucial. “We normally charge €10 for delivery of orders of under €100, but after two days, we decided to waive this,” says Arnaud Vaingre.  Sébastien Rouillaux had the same idea: “we wanted to be as flexible as possible – customers could fill cases as required and delivery was free regardless of the volume. Even for just one bottle.” These changes will continue to be applied after the crisis, which is made easier by Luxembourg being such a small country. “It was motivating too – customers were very positive about every delivery,” says Sébastien Rouillaux. “They encouraged us.”

Like the winemakers, the wine merchants could only rely on their private customer base, which, thanks to all their bright ideas and hard work, has actually grown during this period. As Sébastien Rouillaux puts it: “we had to get moving, be inventive and responsive.” Due to this desire to find solutions, it was even possible to make progress on projects such as digitisation. For instance, Vinoteca launched its new website at the start of summer.

To be honest, we were really concerned. We looked at the accounts to see how long we could keep going and were by no means sure we’d survive.

However, private customers alone will not be sufficient to ensure the survival of these companies that urgently need to diversify their customer base. “We normally sell 60% of our wine to restaurants,” says Arnaud Vaingre. “A return to these levels will not happen straight away… Before placing new orders, restaurants will sell their stock and since they are serving fewer covers in order to comply with social distancing, that will take longer than usual…”

Although Craft et Compagnie previously had strong links with companies, Agnès and Sébastien Rouillaux are under no illusions: “We are expecting there to be tough times ahead, especially since we no longer have much contact with companies that bought wine from us for their receptions or corporate gifts.” With no receptions due to the ban on gatherings and a precarious economic climate, opportunities to pop corks will be few and far between… Roughly speaking, Agnès and Sébastien Rouillaux’s customer base was equally split three ways between individuals, companies and restaurants. An increase in the first category will not compensate for losses in the two other segments. “It’s going to be tough…” says Sébastien.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom and as proof of their genuine passion for wine, it’s remarkable to note that both merchants expressed their delight about the same thing – the ability to place orders with their winemakers again. “In some cases, we were the first to start buying their wine again,” says Sébastien Rouillaux with a smile. “They were surprised and delighted to be finally making deliveries again as champagne has been hard-hit by the lockdown in France.” The ability to support winemakers has also been a source of comfort for Arnaud Vaingre. “We had quite a lot of stock, which was a good thing at the start of lockdown, but it felt good to place new orders in May!”

The experiences of these two merchants go to show that Luxembourgian customers are a special case. “It is clear that the culinary arts are important here and we have seen proof that residents have clung on to their desire to live well and consume quality products despite everything. It is quite an unusual market and very different to France,” acknowledges Agnès Rouillaux.

"Selling online is a completely different business"

During lockdown, the web has been the only way for all traders to access the market. In many cases, it has proven necessary for them to sell their goods online. However, as Arnaud Vaingre (Vinoteca) points out, “selling online is a completely different business”. Firstly, adjustments must be made to the entire logistics process: “Deliveries are very time-consuming as you have to input invoices, optimise delivery runs, fill boxes since customers are free to mix and match, check payment, and ship products.”

And secondly, it is clear that different wines sell better online than in-store. The sommelier provides several explanations for this. “In-store, customers listen to our advice and even on an unconscious level, we promote our favourite wines. The way they are positioned on the shelves is also important – anything at eye level sells better than bottles placed on the top shelves.” 

A further factor, which is surprising but ultimately very understandable, is also at work: “We noticed a significant rise in sales of Alto Adige, an Italian designation of origin, which surprised us, as this is not the most well-known Italian wine. We actually believe that customers selected ‘Italian red wine’ on the website, and since the designations are listed in alphabetical order, they stopped at the first one, Alto Adige, which begins with an “A” and thought let’s give it a try, without scrolling through the entire list!”

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