The online outlet that's cashing in on convenience

Christine Boggis meets the retailers who offer hard-to-find bottles, sound advice and a speedy delivery service

Hidden away in a warehouse in an unlikely-looking Kent industrial estate on the edge of Ramsgate is the hub of an online drinks empire that prides itself

on sourcing drinks that consumers and the trade can't get anywhere else . It's also

a leading resource for anyone who wants to find out more about what they are drinking.

Tim Francis and partner Matthew Blackstone founded

the drink in 1999 - but have only been able to earn enough to live

off the venture for the

past four years. The site now sells 3,100 items, including more than 1,800 spirits, 550 wines and 200 beers and ciders - plus mixers, bar essentials and gifts. Francis tells OLN about the business.

How did you get into drinks?

I was working for a gaming company

- a very successful one. Always having had a hankering for my own business, I would go

to Matthew - my partner and the brains behind the website - and say, we are really good together, we should get an internet company off the ground. He'd say : "Great, good idea .

What trade should we pick?"

We trawled the sites of different industries - car parts, motorbike parts, furniture, and eventually decided on drink. We thought it could be very expansive, ever-growing and could be taken global.

What we wanted to do was

ensure we could do it a lot better than anybody else, even though we had to develop our wares in public. We couldn't outsource to developers and end up with a fan tastic site from day one, that wasn't the way to do it, especially in 1999 as everyone had gone belly-up in the dotcom bubble.

We chose

to be in the drinks industry rather than already being in

it and needing a retail arm. That is why we developed the site and we want it to eventually be the biggest community-driven drinks site on the net . The drinks market hadn't been properly targeted by any other company online. I teamed up with an old friend , who ran a

wine merchant

established in 1856, and that was our initial stock online that gave us 600 lines.

How did you finance it when you were starting out?

It was a real struggle. I was earning consultancy fees in the gaming industry, and Matthew was earning consultancy fees in the IT sector.

It was only four years ago that could afford to pay us and keep us in the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed.

Who is your typical customer?

The drink is either a source of convenience because you don't want to carry

drinks home, so the cash


and time


don't care about the delivery charge, and a lot of people shop

from the site because they can't find the products anywhere else.

We also have a lot of ex-pats in the UK getting sent drinks by friends back home . We need a lot more national spirits of countries which have a big presence in the UK.

How much of your business is trade?

The trade side is growing. It is one in 100 orders but 5% of the value of the business - a trade order is worth more than a consumer one because it is a minimum 12-bottle order

- and if it is ordered before 5pm it will be there the next day. We launched to the trade January 2007 and our clients include bars, restaurants, hotels and off-licences.

For off-licences we offer a white-label service with our price list topped and tailed with their logo and company details. Their customers can browse the list in the shop

and they build up a 12-bottle order. I want to see the white-label system grow - it's so effective for them, it gives them a specialist service within their own off-licence.

Will you ever open a retail outlet?

The only way I could transfer this to the high street would be to have an Argos-style operation. It's been considered but it's been very definitely shelved.

What do you sell apart from drinks?

We are thinking of cigars - not cigarettes, but we are going to do Havanas, Montecristo, Cohiba. Hunters & Frankau are going to supply a humidor. We have added 100-odd books in the past couple of months - books dedicated to whisky, rum, cocktails, liqueurs, certain regions of wine-producing countries, France, Italy and so on. We are looking to expand over the course of the next however many years.

You've got a lot of information on your website - do you find suppliers are supportive of that?

Some suppliers and brand owners don't take part in anything we do. I phoned some people up and said, is there anything you want to do with the brand - cocktail suggestions?

And I didn't get anything back. Why wouldn't a drinks brand put that on the website? Instead they put it on their own websites, which don't get any traffic, and they spend £30,000 for it.

How do you see the business developing in the future?

We always have a theme for the year. 2007 was the year of whisky, 2008 is the year of marketing and the year of wines as well. 2009's theme will be community - all roads lead to Rome, and we are hoping that all roads can lead to

the drink . Mixologists, bartenders, wine enthusiasts, liqueur enthusiasts, whatever

they may be, there will be something for them to reference on

the drink generated by the community.

The future

is all about selling less of more. We have a small amount of everything but the number of lines are vast.

Amazon don't make money out of Harry Potter, it is the specialist books. That has got to be what drinks do.

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