Mill Hill Wines
Mill Hill Wines was established 35 years ago and is now the longest serving shop on The Broadway in Mill Hill, north London. The store was owned and set up by Laurence Hanison until his retirement. Former employee Andy Smith took over the reins in January 2017. The business offers a selection of more than 1,500 wines, spirits, craft beers and cigars.
When did you start working at Mill Hill Wines?
I joined the business eight years ago when I saw an ad for a manager at the store. It appealed to me because I had previously been working for Wine Rack but that business was folding at the time so I was looking for something new. I had never worked for an independent before and I wanted to learn more about the business side. I worked alongside Laurence for six years until he retired, and he was able to teach me a lot about the wine business.
How has the business changed over the years?
At the start of the 1980s when the store was set up, supermarkets were not as they are now with wine, and people had different expectations. The store was more of an off-licence than a retail destination, so it had a range of wines that you couldn’t necessarily find elsewhere but these were priced more towards the value end. It gradually changed over the years to offer more premium wines and to become a proper wine merchant.
The whole area has changed a lot. In fact, just over the eight years I have worked here Mill Hill has changed with more restaurants on the high street, and this creates more of a buzz in the evenings than before, which helps us.
Who is your main competition?
There are no other indies close to us. We do have convenience stores around us where people buy their wines, including a Tesco Express, but we do not really see these as competitors as they provide a different service.
What sorts of things sell well?
We have about 600 wines and we probably have more Old World than New but we have been slowly changing this so we can ensure we have a good strong offer of all the key wine styles and regions. We try to have a mix but historically we have been stronger on Old World, particularly France.
We became a whisky specialist some years ago and now we have around 250 whiskies and a good range of spirits in general. Spirits have definitely grown for us over the past couple of years.
In wines Malbec is doing well and so is Picpoul. Otherwise we are fairly evenly spread on sales.
Sparkling wine sales are improving and over the past year we have seen people moving away from Prosecco – there is definitely some interest in other things.
Crémant is doing well for us, and we also sell a sekt. Cava is something more people are asking about.
We served English sparkling wines at our 35th birthday celebrations recently and they went down really well but they are about treble the price of Prosecco, so it’s not an easy sell.
We do have customers willing to pay that but it is normally taking business away from Champagne, rather than Prosecco.
How do you keep your customers coming back?
We have a monthly tasting in the shop, which we sell tickets for. These tend to be more whisky and spirits, although we do wine ones as well, but these tend to be a bit more ad hoc. We do have non-ticketed events for wine, which is more about just opening up bottles of things on a Friday evening for people to try.
I’d like to do more ticketed wine events.
I’m not sure how we became a whisky specialist but the demand was there so we must have just kept up with that.
When I first started eight years ago we had a good range but nothing like what we have now.
Over the past two years we have really ramped it up. Scotch is the main focus but we have a lot of others: Japanese, the well-known Taiwanese whisky Kavalan, Indian, and bourbon.
What would you like to do next?
The next step with tastings, I think, is to try to have fewer people and to make the group more intimate. I would like to charge a higher ticket price for events such as “sake and sushi”, matching the wine to the food.
We are always re-evaluating the range and looking at gaps and new trends.
I would consider opening a second store if I find the right site, although I am not actively looking at the moment.
I would want the same format but potentially more floor space so that we could hold tastings and maybe integrate a small seating area.
When I took this on I rearranged things to gain more floor space, and we also closed for a day so that we could get the floors stripped and lightened up. We cleared a lot of stock off the floors to make more space.
We are in the process of investing in a new website, which should be running by the end of the summer.