Beer shops under lockdown: We Brought Beer, London

James Hickson has two We Brought Beer shops in the London area, one in Balham and the other in Tooting market. In the latest in this series of interviews with bottle shops across the UK, Hickson talks to DRN about how the business is coping during the pandemic:

Can you give me an idea of how your business is currently operating?

We initially closed both stores on March 22 because we didn’t feel confident keeping them open. This decision was taken out of our hands when the Government announced the closure of hospitality and retail businesses the next day, and although the message was later revised to allow off licences to open, we decided not to do so because we didn’t want to put our staff in that situation.

And once the government had announced the furlough scheme it helped us feel even more confident about keeping the stores closed, while ensuring staff could still get paid.

We weren’t even planning to do deliveries initially but then demand came in from our customers and they said they wanted to support us, so I started putting a list of stock online, particularly of beers which had shorter shelf lives.

It is just me doing local deliveries and I do these once a week on a Friday. I pack up the beers on a Thursday night and spend Friday morning delivering.

What have been the key challenges that you have faced over this period?

I was worried about how to keep operating at first but now all five of my staff have been furloughed and I am topping up their salaries to 100%.

We have also had a business hospitality grant from the government, which has been a lifesaver. I think if we hadn’t had that it would have been a struggle.

The whole situation is very frustrating but in a way I think we are not doing too badly.

I think people are definitely drinking more at the moment. The weather has been good and it is a stressful time with an uncertain future, and so people have been wanting to treat themselves to a nice drink perhaps a bit more often.

But despite this, our sales are still less than they would normally be.

I think we will be ok until the end of July but if it goes on for longer than that then I am really not sure. It will depend on whether our landlords will allow us to have a rent holiday perhaps, and whether the furlough scheme will be extended.

The on-trade side of We Brought Beer was actually doing pretty well before lockdown and it accounted for 30% of the business, so that side of things is a concern.

However, it wasn’t that long ago that we had six stores and so I am really glad we brought this down to two stores because it is much more manageable.

How have your sales been over the past few weeks?

We were really busy over Easter.

Business is still operating at a lower level, although we are now ordering new beers in. We haven’t been able to access as much beer because some breweries are not producing at the moment.

I have noticed a few new customers but most of the orders are from regulars and actually it has been really nice to be able to go and see them.

We had a busy three weeks leading into the lockdown period and March was massively up on last year. This was useful because when we went into March payroll we had more money in the bank.

What are your concerns for the future of the bottle shop and craft beer sectors?

When we re-open we are not going to get back to pre-lockdown levels of trade. We were close to breaking even sometimes so I would have concerns about that.

Rent and wages are the big things and so I will have to have some discussions with my landlord. We have a good landlord here and he knows the area well, so I think he will be open to a discussion about this.

Rent is my biggest outgoing so it is something I worry about for the future, but I am lucky in that the rent for the Tooting branch has been paused because it is in the market and the whole market has closed.

But our rental costs are not huge compared to some drink-in businesses, so it is manageable at the moment. Big pubs are the ones that are really going to be worried about rental costs, going forwards.

The high street is going to look a bit different in the future I think. Social distancing will be with us for a while and so we are going to have less foot traffic.

The next 18 months is going to be weird. I think we can weather it but I am fearful about the future of the high street, and breweries too.

I would suspect that many craft breweries were losing money or breaking even before the lockdown happened, and so I suspect we will see a big clearing out of breweries that were just not sustainable.

We source beer from 150 breweries out of the total of 2,000 in the UK, so I am not worried about being able to source beer.
We offer a place where you can buy a collection of totally different beers from different producers and you can’t do that directlyfrom a brewery, so I’m not worried about breweries selling direct to consumer either. It doesn’t worry me as much as Tesco selling it.

Separately, do you think there are opportunities for off-trade beer specialists at the moment, and looking ahead?

There aren’t many positives.

I think beer shops need to be making as much money as they can right now, because as a sector we are getting more trade now where others are not able to.

Personally, I have chosen to spend more time with my family now and so I have limited our deliveries to once a week, and I am taking a bit of time off.

But I know others not wanting to do that and plenty of beer shops are working hard and I think that is the right thing to do.

We have a good mailing list so perhaps one positive is that we may end up generating more online sales and extra income that way in the future.

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