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The Place: Kensington, London and Islington, London.
The Story: In a normal wine retailer you go in, you look up and down shelves in a pseudo knowledgeable way and you eventually pick one based on a)cost 2)type or c) because you like the label. But not here.
The Sampler store: all kitted out in South Kensington green.
What happens here? The clue is in the title. Chances are you take it home because you have tasted it. And you actually like the taste. Revolutionary.
Indeed. Whose bright idea is this? The founders are one Jamie Hutchinson and Dawn Mannis and their Islington and Kensington branches have been going since 2006 and 2010 respectively.
No doubt a pair of old time wine buffs with 50 years in the business between them? Think on. Hutchinson has a background in finance, a venture capitalist to be exact, for whom wine was previously merely a ‘hobby’.
So the other one is the wine buff? Sorry. She was a TV producer. But that lack of wine retail experience doesn’t seem to matter a jot. Because what they did have was one supersonic idea.
And that was? The Sampling Machine. First spotted in Chianti country where tourists go and try hundreds of chiantis at a sip a time. They’d never seen one in this country so decided to be the first.
Expensive? Sit down. They’re £10k each.
Blimey. Just one per shop then? Keep sitting down. Each shop has 10 of these gleaming silver beasts. So you can imagine they need to earn their keep. Actually according to Hutchinson it’s not the big capital outlay that really hurts, It’s their effect on rents.
This is what it is all about.
Howso? These things take up half the wall space of the outlets. Wall space which could be stocking wine from floor to ceiling. ‘You have to sell a lot more wine for this to make financial sense.’
And do they make sense? Absolutely. A staggering 60 % of the sales in any one week are thee wines being sampled on the machines. Amazing when you consider that only 5% of the total wine stock can be on sample at any one time.
What do you pay? You pay a percentage of the retail price for a whole bottle. So the cheapest could be around 30p for a swig up to… wait for it…. £90.
No one would pay that for a mouthful of wine? You are so wrong. Over Christmas 2010 a wine sampled at £70 a time. The sample bottle was finished in a day.
I thought there was a recession on. In addition, two of the three bottles The Sampler had in stock sold.
I don’t even want to know the price of the bottles. £1,500 a piece. So I think we’ve established that the machines pay their way. According to Hutchinson the majority of people who sample on a visit will buy something. And an awful lot of wine traders will come in for the chance to try a sample of wines they will never buy a whole bottle of. The point of the expensive sample is not to sell lots of it but to allow people to use it as a reference. The whole cost-range of wines are on sample at any one time. And the machines strip away branding and marketing and can make a totally unknown wine very popular very quickly.
So, should I ever have that spare £90 what do I do? Simple. You ask for a sampling card, you charge it with whatever amount you like and then get swigging in either shop. 10,000 cards are issued per annum.
Who are the customers? Definitely locals. It takes time to build up and Kensington has only been going a year but Hutchinson says he could seem himself opening 5 to 6 in London in the medium term and sees no reason why the concept shouldn’t work anywhere.
No one else doing this? Not quite in the same way. Selfridges have their Wonder Bar and in fact The Sampler recently teamed up with them to force a change in the law on selling ‘sips’. But they’re not quite competing yet.
Yet? The Sampler opened a wine bar in its Kensington shop six months ago. You pay £7.50 corkage and drink the wine you have bought. According to Hutchinson there’s no table service as such but your wine will be served properly which might make a nice change.
Successful? Early days. But the end of the week is already pretty busy and early week beginning to go the same way. ‘There are plenty of pubs in Kensington but the only good wine is to be found in restaurants’. This wine bar changes all that.
Any other excitement? There’s always the Wine Club. The Sampler put together unusual cases of wines and changes them every three months. The most popular combo is £150 for 12 bottles on a quarterly basis or six bottles for £100 monthly.
And who decides what are the unusual wines? It’s down to the staff. When they join they are assigned a geographical area of wine expertise to make their own. Then they pore over local wine magazines, talk to local drinks journalists and local wine makers to find out the rare and wonderful.
So as a wine seller and wine buyer what does he reckon to the state of the UK market? Well, supermarkets are very good at selling wine but are never quality driven. They are discount and brand driven. It’s hard to compete against when they are selling, Champagne, for example, at zero margin. But they will never be able to stock small interesting estates as a wine producer needs 100 hectares to be of any interest to them. And in addition the top French estates ‘would rather die’ than be sold in a supermarket anyway. In contrast UK wine producers ‘have no idea whatsoever of a distribution strategy’, selling all of their stock to supermarkets and leaving nothing for anyone else is just silly.
Anything bubbling under for 2012? Oh yes. And funnily enough it involves bubbles. The Sparkling Sampling Machine is coming. Currently in development and having only 4 plugs to sample from it will nevertheless retail at around £13k but Hutchinson is very excited about it. He claims Champagne is the ‘most skewed in price/quality ratio’ of all products with huge industrial producers spending massive budgets on big names. The Sampler will be changing all this. But of course that’s what they‘re good at.
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