New independent businesses are tena-penny in St Andrews. Many have come and some have gone. Some have risen admirably to the challenge of running a small business and others have unfortunately not. There are many traps and pitfalls of opening small businesses in our little town, not least the multiplicity of high street chains which can charge lower prices and have the advantage of an established brand name. With this in mind, The Saint went to interview Peter Wood, the owner of the St Andrews Wine Company on Bell Street.
A cheery man, it is clear from meeting him that Wood is passionate about wine, undoubtedly a pre-requisite for this ambitious undertaking. Wood has lived in the St Andrews area for twenty years and been in the drinks trade for twelve, so he brings a wealth of knowledge with him to this new venture. He used to run Oddbins in St Andrews (a chain of wine retailers that went into administration in 2011, closing a third of its branches), during which time business increased by over 30%. His philosophy that “people want to spend money on wine, but they don’t want to spend a lot” has focused his range on bottles costing between £6 and £20, aiming to provide quality without alienating students.
He remarks that while the supermarkets “do wine costing between £3 and £5 well, and there is a gap between them and the higher end retailers. But supermarkets often deceive their customers with dishonest retailing, brought to light no less by the recent horsemeat scandal. Promotions are proven to be fake, they often raise prices to make a discount look more appealing, rendering the whole thing pointless. I work out what price I can afford to charge for each bottle, while still making a profit.”
“The problem with some businesses in St Andrews is that they open thinking that it’s an easy to way to make money, but they’re totally misguided. Opening up a convenience store literally 20 seconds walk from Tesco, that’s not exactly a recipe for easy success. Also it’s no secret that landlords can be quite cutthroat in this town, but I’m lucky in that mine’s been very helpful. By focusing on wine that people drink and allowing them to try things and hopefully infuse them with my own passion means that I can turn over stock more quickly and keep profit margins down. This also means that I do not have to commit a large amount of money to stock.”
Wood has big plans for his shop. He already maintains a presence on social media (652 likes on Facebook and 350 followers on Twitter) and uses it regularly to interact with customers. He also has plans to launch a loyalty scheme, which he believes has not been done before in the wine trade. Explaining his approach to wine retailing in St Andrews, he remarks that he is “integrating social media and the internet into a bricks and mortar shop. A lot of wine businesses have websites that are pretty mediocre – essentially a list of their products and the option to buy if you want to. My website looks to contain information about the wine rather than simply a hard sell. The use of social media is vital, business is a two-way conversation, and talking with customers and getting feedback is just as important as merely showing the new products on sale.”
The daily free wine tastings also contribute to this idea of creating a business that is about more than simply making money. “People come in just to try the wine and talk to us, and this means that we are in a better position to provide what people want. It would be much better for someone to come in, try the wine, and leave without buying anything, than it would be for them to walk past. If people come in to the shop at least they are learning about wine, what they like and don’t like. If they come in once, they’re more likely to come in again and buy a bottle later. The bottle of wine available for tasting today was a free one from a supplier, and was not even on sale, meaning that even if a customer had wanted to buy it, they would not have been able to.”
Wood does not believe that Luvian’s and St Andrews Wine Company threaten each other’s survival. “Although we appeal to different people, there will always be a crossover. St Andrews is big enough to support us both; look at the cheese shops, or even Starbucks and Costa. They all manage to survive even though they are providing what is essentially the same product. Some people may choose to go to one purely because of location and convenience. Some may simply prefer one over the other. If I’m right, I’ll succeed, and if I’m wrong, I won’t.”
It is clear that with the right attitude, a sound business plan, and a bit of good luck, great businesses can thrive in St Andrews, and Peter appears to have carved out a niche for himself. His personality and infectious enthusiasm for wine come across easily and make the shop an inviting and interesting place, and true to his word, it feels like “an independent bookshop with bottles”.