Growth & Customers

Vagabond Wines: ‘We had to find a balance between cost-saving and using money to meet demand’

Find out how wine retailer Vagabond Wines pivoted during the coronavirus pandemic, turning to ecommerce to keep business moving.

Vagabond Wines

During times of uncertainty, there may come a need for businesses to pivot.

Those companies that are able to change their processes and offerings to keep moving forward give themselves the best chance to succeed.

Vagabond Wines is one such business. Launched in 2010, the wine retailer specialises in providing unique drinking experiences.

It has seven bars around London, each allowing customers to have access to taste more than 120 wines at the press of a button with its self-pour technology – the first of its kind.

Customers took to this quickly, driving success for the business for a solid decade, and there are plans to open more bars.

However, the coronavirus lockdowns in the UK have meant venue-based businesses can’t run as normal for the time being.

Annah McKendry is the Head of Marketing at Vagabond Wines, responsible for driving marketing activity for the brand, including events, new openings, digital marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO), PR and communications.

In this article, she shares her thoughts on how businesses can pivot to weather any storm.

Adopt a balanced approach

“When the restrictions first came into place, it was hard for us, and many businesses to determine whether we should be making additional investments to adapt,” says Annah.

“It’s been important for us to find a balance between cost-saving and using the money to ensure we have everything we need to meet demand.”

Although it was natural for retailers to have battened down the hatches and focused on stabilising the business through improving cash flow, playing defence may not have been the best strategy.

The most adaptable businesses adopt a balanced approach between cost-cutting and increased investment, doing what’s necessary to provide services and products where customers need them.

With that in mind, what could you do for your business?

Start by reviewing it. Take a good look at your company and examine how you can operate going forward. The environment is extremely volatile and fluid, which means you need to get granular and create a detailed plan.

Annah argues that retailers should not solely focus on saving money during the pandemic because it’s difficult to forecast and manage cash flow due to the dramatic changes in the business climate.

She adds: “It’s no longer a case of identifying what did well this time last year and doing more of the same the next year.”

Make the right investments

Because of its adaptability, Vagabond Wines has managed to survive and invest in new digital services that will allow it to thrive when lockdowns finally become a distant memory.

Like many retailers whose business was primarily offline, it’s launched an ecommerce strategy driven by commercial needs.

Coronavirus has been an accelerator for omnichannel strategies, mainly because many companies can only reach customers online during lockdown restriction periods.

“Start trying new things,” says Annah. “We’re a serve-yourself wine bar but decided to launch an ecommerce site because we had to adapt what we’d always done, aligning with what our customers were seeking: good quality wine, and the experience to match it.

“In short, we never would have thought we’d see our highest week of ecommerce less than a year later, in January…notoriously not a great month for alcohol.”

Protect the quality of your customer service

Selling wine online was one thing, but it’s not something that recreates the unique business model at Vagabond Wines where wine tasting and creating a social community around it was a central part of what made it memorable.

During coronavirus, many businesses have taken advantage of online tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom to allow their employees to communicate for work.

People have also used them to organise social events, such as pub quizzes and gaming experiences where friends and colleagues can spend time ‘together’ in the absence of in-person meetings.

You need to invest in technology that protects the quality of service you offer customers, and for businesses such as Vagabond Wines, video conferencing was part of the process.

Annah explains that customers had been able to get their Vagabond ‘fix’ during lockdown, thanks to their virtual wine tasting experiences.

“We gradually started to hold ticketed virtual wine tasting events with large groups of people at specified times,” she says. “We soon realised that our customers wanted accessibility, and to do online wine tastings with their friends, so we launched our online wine flights.

“In truth, these have done better than we ever thought they would.

“Due to the success of the wine flights, there are plans to continue them in some capacity once we go back to ‘normal’.

“We believe that people’s attitudes to going out will change and office life will certainly have changed, and there will still be an appetite for at-home experiences.

“We can’t say too much yet, but they will be evolving into something new.”

Vagabond Wines has already experienced what life may be like as the pandemic starts to end.

When it was able to open stores up again during the summer of 2020, the team quickly realised that they couldn’t operate in the usual Vagabond ‘self-pour’ way under new restrictions.

Annah says this meant Vagabond had to switch into a traditional wine bar with table service only, but with a twist: “We decided to offer wine flights so that our customers could still have the Vagabond experience while remaining seated at their tables.”

Thrive by adapting to change

Although retailers have long known that the digital model is the way forward, nobody could predict that they would be forced to establish an ecommerce strategy in a few months.

Vagabond Wines is a business that has worked hard to keep its relationship going with customers during coronavirus, even if it required additional investment.

This shows small and medium businesses are perhaps the most adaptable to change, which increases the chance of riding out a challenge such as coronavirus, and thriving beyond it.

It’s worth remembering that even when this pandemic becomes a distant memory, technology-enabled commerce is only going to deepen.

While we’re not yet able to put coronavirus behind us, the world is slowly but surely adjusting to the ‘new normal’ and creating a different reality – one where the way we do retail has fundamentally changed, possibly forever.

It’s a critical time, then, for you to make informed changes and shifts in the way you operate, and there is room for success if you manage people and processes better than your competition at this crucial time.

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