Indie Insider: HarperWells with Sam Howard
Indie Insider profiles and showcases the brilliant Indie Wine Merchant scene in the UK.
Indie Insider is a new thing from me, talking to people from within the Indie trade about what they do, how they do it, and why it works for them.
I’m going to be doing some tasting events with HarperWells at their Deli in Diss, Fredricks Fine Foods over the summer, so this Indie Insider also has a slightly hidden promotional agenda.
I posed these questions to Sam by email, and his responses are quoted below.
Name: Sam Howard
Job Title: If we had a GM I’d be the GM
Key Responsibilities: I split my time between the company’s Private Clients and our Deli in Diss
Location / Region: Main retail site in Norwich and their deli, Fredericks Fine Foods, Diss, both in Norfolk, UK.
What’s the … Buying ethos?
Authentic wines; wines made by a person not a corporation.
This is a strong start from Sam!
Coming from a private client background, I’d say my sourcing style is based on storylines. Twenty years ago, I would have been championing the great estates of Italy and Bordeaux, but today it’s more about the winemaker not the bricks and mortar.
It’s worth mentioning here that HarperWells were in the Top10 in the Harpers UK 50 Best Indies list last year.
A two fold answer.
For the Norwich shop it’s the big four; Boutinot, Liberty, Hallgarten and Alliance.
But, with my private client hat on, it tends to be small parcels with brokers like Wilkonson Vintners, or small specialists like Nekter.
I tend to work a lot on allocations so I have the privilege to be able to buy from lots of people without having to worry about continuity of lists.
Those ‘Big Four’ appear in the Wine Merchant Reader Survey relatively often, they all have ranges that are diverse and cover all bases, so it’s surprisingly easy to craft together an eclectic, diverse retail range from a small number of suppliers. Commercially this is pretty sound.
HarperWells in Norwich also have the benefit of being one of the most prominent Indies in the whole of Norfolk, so there’s not too many retail places buying from the same suppliers locally.
What guides your approach to buying?
Usually it’s about a new release, or side project from an established estate.
I tend to follow winemakers rather than estates. For example Evan Frazier from Kongsgaard is making his own label wines, or Rory William from Frogs Leap.
Sam’s next offer is wines from Edi Simcic, from the Goriška Brda region of Slovenia…
A wine I imported twenty years ago that’s turned up on another ‘old friends’ list, so it’s nice to write up an offer and see where it takes you.
I’m enjoying having the Deli shelves in Diss to experiment and drip feed in a few of these sorts of wines.
This is how Sam puts together his private client offers, guided by interesting wines on his radar, and picking up small parcels on instinct. It’s a nice way to keep your customers happy while being able to pepper your range with some wines that come and go.
It also means that HarperWells can use offers and parcels as a way to test the water for new styles, and which direction the rest of the range may evolve into over time.
Who are … trying to Sell to?
Our loyal customers, via retail, events and through our mailing list.
Routes to Market?
I’m going to be bold and say not mail order - I think our days of shipping nationally distributed wines up and down the country are over.
It no longer makes sense financially, or environmentally.
By ‘mail order’ I’d assume that’s Sam’s way of explaining why HarperWells don’t have an e-commerce website, and simply don’t compete in the highly competitive online space.
Their customers are generally known to Sam, and clearly drives sales through loyalty and good customer retention, which is key for any Indie to focus on.
One off customers aren’t going to get you anywhere.
Tom and Gary [actual customers] represent our both newer customers who came to us via our retail outlets and long-term customers who came to us via direct mailings, advertisements in Decanter, The Week.
Tom is in his early 20s, says he got into wine because he used to come into our shop to buy cool ‘natty’ wines to share with his Dad and girlfriend. Tom’s moved out of Norfolk, but still buys from us.
Gary is in his 80s. I have never met him and he’s my only customer without an email address. I have sold Gary the likes of ‘Mitolo Jester’ for over a decade.
I love this real life example, actual customers and how diversity can provide a business with a solid platform. People of all ages just love good wines, you can’t rely on fads and trends.
Why do think the approach works?
The overall vibe at HarperWells is empowerment, you can buy what you like as long as you can sell it.
My sales technique is best described as ‘build it and they will come’ . It starts with sourcing a great parcel.
In the early days I sold private clients the likes of Sassicaia, Masseto & Ornellaia.
I’ve slowed down selling those, and verticals of Flaccianello, as many have started buying wines from the Swartland Revolution / New Wave SA.
Another example of buying on instinct and being able to evolve with you customers, not against them.
We want to continue to grow our number of sites, if we can make sure the numbers work, then smaller satellite shops similar to the Deli, where we don’t hold lots of stock but offer a dynamic range and a great wine experience is centre to our future plans.
We have the second release of our own wine project. This year a single varietal Seyal Blanc, we have kept 20% back that was macerated on the skins, which we may blend into the main wine.
We’re hoping to package in the Frugal cardboard bottle and release a rosso vermouth from the remaining field blend. Launch date for that is at our tasting on the 24th June
I’m working with Sam to select some wines for the Deli Summer Tasting on the 24th of June , and I’ll be hosting an English Wine Masterclass, featuring wines from Flint Vineyard, Gutter & Stars and the Wharie Experience.
Also coming up;
8th July @ The Sewing Room, Restaurant Benedicts: Gutter & Stars wine dinner, with winemaker Chris Wilson. It’s worth being on my mailing list just for this invite!
You can get in touch with Sam by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you could change one thing about the Indie Wine Trade?
I’m not sure I would want to! Being an independent is exactly that, you are free to buy and sell whatever you want.
I’m not even sure I’d want a level playing field. If the multiples were forced to stop heavily discounting homogenised brands, it would make my job harder.
I don’t like corporations pretending to be independent and I don’t like the race to the bottom. But, that’s not a gripe specific to the Indie wine industry.
My Three Key Points
🤓 Sam confidently doesn’t have an e-commerce site, preferring to build and nurture relationships through in person retail and by direct email. This lowers operational overheads, and drives customer retention.
🤓 The change in buyer habits of Sam’s private clients away from the classics like Bordeaux and Tuscany, into winemaker specific, premium wines from emerging regions is a great example of buying for the future, and building a customer base around your wine preferences and things your passionate about.
🤓 HarperWells have a reliable base in Norwich, they’re planning on expanding using satellite/hybrid shops in smaller towns nearby, a gentle brand extension, and a nice way to increase regional presence.
This bit didn’t really fit anywhere else, but if gives you a good sense of Sam’s nature:
I am old school, when I started in the wine trade in 1998, google was a start up.
I sent my first email offer in about 2005 and my boss in no uncertain terms told me not to rely on it. He printed my offer and mailed it out to customers.
No one bought from the email.
“I don’t need to pay a sales team to take orders”
He refused to accept a sale was a sale if the customer hadn’t said no at least once.
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