The Future in a Bottle – Resetting a Successful Retail Business

The economic impact of COVID-19 is hitting industries very differently. In the first of a series to shine the spotlight on Skipton businesses, we look at an ‘essential’ retail business that had to juggle supply chain management, scaling down business, managing employees, cash flow management etc.

by Liz Smailes, Marketing & Communications Officer, Skipton BID

The Wright Wine & Whisky Company in Skipton

The Wright Wine and Whisky Company is one of Skipton’s unique treasure trove finds for any visitor and a staple lifestyle shop for the town’s residents. Since 1982 they have been an independent wholesale and retail wine, whisky and gin specialist founded on two principles; to stock great products and offer excellent advice.

Despite falling under one of the UK government’s ‘essential’ retail businesses permitted to operate during the lockdown, Julian Kaye, the Managing Director of The Wright Wine and Whisky Company, initially chose to temporarily close the operations. Once they had time to review the situation and analyse their business model, he could then begin to reset their business operations to adapt to the times and see a future beyond lockdown. Skipton BID asked him to share his experience.

Reviewing, Resetting and Restarting in Corona Times

By Julian Kaye

Julian Kaye,
Managing Director

It was precisely on 20th February that we really knew things had taken a bad turn.

After January, which is notoriously quiet in this trade, we started looking hopeful as February progressed – but towards the end of the month several functions, which we were supplying, were cancelled. Then more were cancelled. Then restaurants and trade orders (who make up a large percentage of our orders) began to slow. The proverbial dung had well and truly hit the fan. There’s no better way to describe this.

We recognised that, for the simple sake of business preservation, we had to make some difficult decisions. For the last 30 years, we’ve pre-bought wine from certain suppliers, which then rests in the warehouse to ensure future stocks. This relationship has endured recessions, tax increases, transport strikes and anything in-between. We had, with great reluctance, to end some of those relationships. The knock-on effect of such action on the supply chain was not lost to us, as we were soon to find out.

The decline continued into March, and then the Prime Minister closed restaurants and pubs and ‘non-essential’ retail.

“Just go online” people said. But it’s not always so simple.

With the restaurant trade effectively closing overnight, this left us in-debt to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. But it wasn’t through neglect – it was simply because the tap of custom, and therefore money, had been shut off almost overnight. The knock-on effect continues.

So how does a relatively small and independently-owned business survive such knocks? With lots of hard work, and lots of support.

The furlough scheme certainly helped, and legally, we were able to continue trading. But from a moral standpoint – did this feel right? Many businesses, jobs – and people’s health and lives were being devastated, so did it seem right for us to be selling wine?

With heavy hearts, we closed our doors and suspended all website trade.

The first of seven rooms at retail shop in Skipton
The Wright Wine Company legally could have kept the shop open during lockdown, but were concerned about doing the correct thing for staff safety.

Messages Beyond The Bottle

Then the phone started ringing. Personal calls, retail customers, local businesses, and many more contacted us. We were convinced, cajoled and overwhelmed. We started some local deliveries with tentative steps.

The whisky vault from the seven rooms at retail shop
The Wright Wine and Whisky Company in Skipton
After a collective decision with the team MD Julian Kaye decided to run a home delivery and collection service instead.
Now Julian himself spends 12 hours a day in his warehouse packing home delivery boxes.

These orders consisted of wine selections, coupled with bread, milk and meat delivery from a local baker and butcher. And then it grew and grew. We introduced more wine options, and re-opened our website as we knew we could safely pick stock from our warehouse and deliver to customers whilst they were still locked-down. This meant four of the team could come back to work – to drive, man the phones and process orders. Things looked ‘better’. Not ideal, not brilliant – but better.

Our restaurant customers had to make their own difficult decisions, but have honoured their debts – and as have we. Our suppliers are now paid when we order from them – the importance of cash flow rather than managed debt has never been so important. And recently, we were able to re-open our shop doors.

What The Future Holds…

There’s still a long, long way to go. The hospitality trade is still devastated and it’s unknown when it will return to it’s full capacity as we once knew it. Retail is restricted due to social distancing rules and the result is our turnover is a fraction of what it once was.

But we’re not giving up by any means.

How’s it working now? As the owner, Managing Director, “boss” of The Wright Wine Company, I’ve had one single day away from our warehouse in the last three months. (I have a family…!). I have personally picked and packed each and every bottle of wine that we’ve delivered in this time – and am continuing to do so. If that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do. We’ve been in Skipton since 1982 and I have no desire to change this.

Also, we’re talking regularly to our restaurant customers and supporting them however we are able to – whether that’s moral support, or just being ready for them when they reopen.

Photo credit : Jo Denison – Lockdown Project – Instagram @jodenison
80% of the Wright Wine Company’s business came from the restaurant trade which stopped overnight with lockdown. In fact the WWC, just as many other suppliers to the hospitality sector, have large amounts of outstanding invoices that have simply not been paid. It continues to be a worrying time, but they have enjoyed the unexpected change to the business and hope to continue the service with support from their new customers. Julian is clear about his gratitude to the local community: “The Aire valley has been our saviour”.
Instagram @thewrightwinecompany

My parting message is simple: As lockdown eases, and it’s easier to get to the large supermarkets and chain stores – please don’t forget the independents like us. We’ve delivered to you with a smile, we’ve sacrificed our time and many parts of our businesses – and we give Skipton it’s character and individuality.

Quite frankly, we need you more than ever.

Thank you!

Julian Kaye, Owner, MD, Warehouse & Delivery Driver at The Wright Wine & Whisky Company

The Old Smithy,
Raikes Road,
North Yorkshire
BD23 1NP

Tel: 01756 700886