Lancaster Wine, Lancaster

Barry and Fiona Howarth opened Lancaster Wine six years ago when they spotted a gap in the market for an independent wine store. Being made redundant triggered the move and provided the finances for the business, which has gone from strength to strength since. DRN catches up with Barry Howarth:

How did the business start?

I was made redundant from a wine wholesale company and it was the perfect storm really.

I had been running wine shops for 30 years, including a stint with Wine Rack and Oddbins, so I had a lot of experience.

I had always wanted to run my own wine shop and in some ways I had been looking to make this leap for about 15 years. I had redundancy money so I could afford to live for six months without working while I sorted out the shop. I also had some inheritance money around the same time, which gave me enough for start-up capital. The store is on the main road into Lancaster and there is on-street parking. The town is a nightmare for parking so this is a real bonus – you can come in and have a browse then fill up the car with wine.

We are quite visible from the main road and the store is part of a parade of shops.

I managed to refurbish most of it myself and being made redundant gave me a bit more time to work on it. I spent three months sanding old claret boxes I had collected over the years to use as displays in the shop. I also bought some shelves from Ikea and spent a lot of time on Ebay buying stuff.

The shop needed new flooring and that was the major thing, but not much more than that.

What is the competition like in the area? Lancaster is fairly big and it has a university. It is in the north-west of England and although there is a Booths in this area it is really a bit of a vinous desert and it didn’t have much in terms of wine retail. There wasn’t a Majestic or an Oddbins and I always felt there was potential for Lancaster to have a good wine shop.

It is a reasonably affluent area and a fairly big city.

A few months after I opened the store one guy tried to open his own wine shop in town, but it didn’t last very long and no one else has tried since then.

Booths used to have some interesting wines but I would say Waitrose has a better selection now and the range at Booths isn’t quite as good as it used to be.

I don’t worry too much about competition. I have more than 500 different wines and my USP is me.

What sells well?

Chilean wine has been very popular and people know they are getting a good bang for their buck.

Australia was the go-to place 30 years ago and there are some good wines about, but you can pay £30 and upwards for a decent bottle of wine from there.

Wines from Chile are tasty and good value and I think France is coming back. I have a good range of French wines – Loire, claret, Bordeaux.

We have around 80 gins and I would say sales plateaued on gin last year, although we do still sell a lot.

Fruit-flavoured gins are very popular and we have increased our range.

With gin we try to go local so we have Cuckoo gin, Batch from Burnley, Goosnargh and, from a bit further away, we have Lake District gins, Yorkshire gin and spirits from Lakes Distillery.

After about a year of running this place I was offered the space downstairs so I took it and it’s been really useful for storing wines, plus it has its own entrance.

I was using a store room at the back of the shop so I was then able to turn that room into a beer room with 200 beers – now 15% of our turnover is beer.

We have a lot of local brews and some international ones. We do beer tastings too.

How do you get people coming back?

We do a lot of in-store tastings and we have a table in the centre that seats 12 people. It’s a good number because one bottle works well for 12 people for samples.

We do ticketed tastings on Thursdays and Friday evenings and then we sometimes do some private ones on Saturday evenings.

We have a wide variety of gin and whisky, so we do tastings of these too.

One of our recent tastings was wines from New Zealand but with this we really wanted to show what else New Zealand can do, so we had wines such as Grüner Veltliner, Albariño and sweet Rieslings, as well as three red examples.

We want to try to broaden people’s horizons.

People often buy after a tasting and I would say around 15% of our business is wines we sell after a tasting, so they can be very profitable.

I send a weekly email out to my customers and I probably alert people to tastings about four or five weeks ahead.

We also do two major tasting events in the town hall and these are supplier-funded. We get around 350 people paying £10 a ticket, and there are 20-25 tables of suppliers showing their wines, whiskies and gins.

What plans do you have for the future?

I would love to have a hybrid store with a drink-in element. I have looked at a site in the town centre and I have another I want to see.

It is a huge investment so we like to think we have a good reputation and a good enough name now to open another shop.

Basically I would like the second site to be a wine bar with a good take-out retail element because there is nowhere in Lancaster where you can get a really good bottle of wine to drink in, perhaps with some basic foods like a plate of meat and cheese. Somewhere like Salut in Manchester is what I think this area needs.

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