On Wine Buyers

Serialising Tasting Notes, the novel I wrote twelve years ago, is bringing back memories of my years as a wine saleswoman and the many buyers I sold to.

‘Rachel sounds awful,’ my eldest daughter said yesterday.

‘Read on,’ I said. ‘She’s not.’

‘Rachel’, Tasting Notes’ fictional supermarket wine buyer, is an amalgam of two buyers I let down at different times in my professional life. In both cases, one a logistical nightmare, and the other a quality issue, internal politics hindered my efforts to solve the problem. Those two incidents have stuck in my mind, maybe because those two buyers were, like me at the time, female, young and conscientious. I badly wanted to do the right thing by them. And although both of them screamed at me on the phone I didn’t resent them for it as I knew I, or rather the people I worked with at the time, had put them in an impossible situation.

I also liked them. I emphasized with the vulnerability I sensed behind the tough exterior, a vulnerability that showed itself when one of them asked me, ‘I am not too hard, am I? Do you think I am a good buyer?’ I respect people who aren’t afraid of showing their frailty, especially when they have huge responsibilities and power.

The balance of power in the wine business is heavily skewed towards buyers and especially supermarket buyers. A handful of them control three quarter of the wines sold to the British public. Few, if any, wine brands and therefore suppliers, are indispensable and no supplier can afford to lose the kind of volume that supermarkets command.

Yet the illusion of an equal partnership is often touted around, and by the worst offenders, for reasons I can’t fathom. The best example may be suppliers’ conferences when said suppliers are invited to listen to one corporate speech after another, extolling the wisdom of the current retail / sourcing strategy and, if there are costs attached, why it’s still the best thing under the sun. Suppliers nod and clap and, like sacrificial victims, are fed tasty morsels from the organiser’s range. I burst into laughter at the sight of perfectly arranged pyramids of unrealistically perfect raspberries at an M&S global suppliers’ conference fifteen years ago. They symbolised for me the fakeness of the event. I devoured them though: with a price tag of 1% of my turnover, I wasn’t going to let them go to waste.

Woe betide the suicidal greenhorn who’d dare to ask a genuinely provocative question or indeed criticise anything at all at such events. Should you think I am a bitter cynic, please read the chapter on suppliers’ conferences in Corkscrew by ‘Peter Stafford-Bow’, a former buyer. It had me in tears of laughter.

I grew to fear corporate jargon buzzwords such as ‘new partnership initiative’ or ‘enhanced collaborative working’ in my years as a wine saleswoman. They would usher either open book policies, never in the interest of the seller, or cuts to already wafer slim margins. One particularly bruising initiative – yearly deals had been signed and sealed only weeks before – was called ‘Plan B’, a term I found highly ironical considering the lack of an actual plan B for the supply side.

I may have developed a touch of Stockholm syndrome in my selling days. I was obsessed with ‘my’ buyers and couldn’t bear to let them down. I once took my camera to Vinexpo with the express purpose of creating mementoes of that motley crew. It was long before the era of mobile phones and selfies, and wasn’t quite the done thing. ‘Why on earth would you want my picture?’ Steve Daniel of Oddbins fame asked. ‘Because buyers are very important in my life and I want to remember you as much as I do my friends,’ I truthfully said. He obliged. He probably thought I was unhinged.

I often wished I were a buyer in those days. Looking at it from the other side, it looked like an enviable job and an easier one than mine. The grass is always greener, I suppose. Buyers who became friends took great pains to dispel my illusions, explaining the pressure they were under, and the seemingly unstoppable increase in their workload through the years. I came to believe them, saving myself too many regrets. Laura Jewell MW cemented that new conviction when she told an interviewer she was looking forward to ‘being nice again’ when she left her Tesco buying position to head Wine Australia Europe, Middle East & Africa.

Being nice isn’t always seen as a prerequisite to be a good buyer. It is though, as Laura knew. Salespeople much prefer courteous and decent buyers and, more importantly, will get out of their way to support them. If you are a supermarket buyer, you have the power anyway. Being graceful about the way you exert it will make a huge difference to your suppliers and ultimately to your business. I stitched up a particularly unpleasant buyer once and loved it. Underdogs bite too.

I met the French wine buyer for one of the Big Four at Think France, an event to promote French wines I organised with Agile Media in 2019. She approached me at the end of the day, introduced herself and congratulated me on a well-run and worthwhile event. In her position, she could have swanned in and out without saying a word and we would still have been delighted to have her name on the visitors’ list. Her kind and selfless comment was pure class. It made my day.

I was once told, ‘In business, you are your position.’ This advice should be tattooed on the skin of every young buyer. Power buys you friends and attention but it isn’t you as a person these fickle friends like, it is what you represent. The people who trail you at wine fairs and tastings are mostly interested in your purchasing power. They are doing a job, their job. I have heard many former buyers through the years commenting on their loss of popularity once they’d left buying behind. Those who behaved ethically and treated people well kept their friends.

This is especially relevant to supermarket wine buyers who have to choose at some point between a career in retail and a career in wine. ‘I don’t want to learn too much about wine,’ a new buyer once said to me. ‘I want to make it to catman (category manager) and I don’t care what I buy.’ I was disappointed but applauded his clear-sightedness. For those who decide to stick with wine, the reality check about what people really think of them comes when they apply for alternative positions or start their own business.

Last week I read an article in The Sunday Times business pages about a new cost cutting drive at Tesco’s and demands that suppliers agree to significant price reductions with no guarantee of increased volume. An anonymous supplier described this initiative as a return to ‘the bad old days’ and the ‘toxic atmosphere that pervaded everyone’s interactions.’

If indeed this brief period when Tesco recognised that ‘to get the best out of suppliers they had to change the way they interacted with them’ is at an end, I agree with the author that ‘the greatest irony is that the harder [Tesco] pushes, the more suppliers will want to develop stronger links with the discounters.’ Short term tactical gains do not equate long term success.

On Friday, Angela Mount wrote in Harpers on the impact of Covid on wine buying practices. Despite the depressing news that, ‘Prospective producers and suppliers may have to wait as range reviews have been delayed and current ranges are pretty much frozen,’ I took solace in the quote from Kim Wilson, MD of North South Wines that concludes the article: ‘In the current situation, it’s about true partnerships. Everyone is going the extra mile, the industry is working together, paying on time, working together, supporting at every stage, for all our survival. Buyers are loyal and trust those who understand them, it’s about working collaboratively now.’

I don’t know if it will last but I am keeping my fingers crossed for a new era of genuine partnership between wine suppliers and buyers. In the torrid times the wine industry and the rest of the world are experiencing, ‘Every little helps’.

Angela Mount’s article is here: https://harpers.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/27469/Friday_read:_Retail_sales_boom_belies_range_stagnation.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=e-mail&utm_campaign=Harpers%252Bnewsletter%252BIssue%252B935

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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