As businesses emerge from lockdown, we look at how they are adapting to the new retail landscape by talking to Phil Innes, the boss of multi-award winning Loki Wine
Two days before lockdown Phil Innes was in Tenerife doing what he does best, sourcing and tasting wine. “When I returned it was chaos, no one knew what was going on,” he says. The founder of Birmingham wine merchant Loki Wine found himself thrust into the same position as thousands of other businesses: “It was sudden and confused, we had to try and work out in a completely new environment what we thought we could do – and then just see what happened!”
While nothing could replace the buzz – or the revenue – from Phil’s wine bars, lockdown did indeed throw up opportunities which moving forward the business will look to develop further. It goes without saying that online took off. Not unexpected with pretty much everything closed down, but the increase in the volume of sales was “massive” and a surprise, says Phil. “It’s an area which we definitely will pay an even greater focus on in the business moving forward,” he adds.
What really caught him out though was the popularity in virtual wine tasting which he floated instead of the tradition sessions which Loki runs so successfully. The virtual group started out with just under 80 couples online and within four weeks had increased to more than 250 couples. “Having 500 people in one tasting was amazing,” said Phil. “We had plenty of couples with children who would normally struggle to make wine tasting but who were able to join us online from the comfort of their own homes and relax and really enjoy the experience.”
Like many businesses, Loki furloughed staff during lockdown with only a couple remaining to work online. As we spoke Phil was starting to bring back staff in readiness of re-opening. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’re making a couple of changes. With online being a large chunk of business now, we’re running that out of our Edgbaston operation which will open up first. Then a couple of weeks later, we’ll re-open at Great Western Arcade which will be purely a bar.
“We’re expecting people will gradually come back – they’ll be a bit nervous at first because of the virus. We will be putting in place all the necessary safety conditions, like social distancing and so on. While being fantastic, home delivery doesn’t replace shops and bars but we’ve adapted really well and it has shown us a new reality that’s great moving forward.”
Before the pandemic, the business was looking to expand to a third site and Phil says that’s still very much the plan. “We want to be a social place where people come to meet and enjoy wine,” he said. “The online side has given us a new dimension and which is really positive but I want to expand further once we have found the right location. We have several places in mind.”
Phil who developed his knowledge of wine while working for the likes of Wine Rack and Oddbins set up Loki Wine in 2012 after a chance visit to a Florence wine bar while on a break. He spotted a wine sampling machine which at the time was a rare sight in the UK and decided to introduce them as a major feature to wine lovers here in Brum. Loki Wine has since gone on to win more awards than any other merchant in the UK.
VIBRANT AND DIVERSE
He said: “ I worked my way up in one of the bleakest, dogma-dominated industries. Loki purposefully flies in the face of industry tradition by encouraging people to try, sample and discover before purchasing. I am also keen that Loki stays a young collective, which means that the wines on tasting will stay interesting, vibrant and diverse in flavour-profile and budget. All our staff love wine, and they love sharing their opinions and recommendations with the wonderful, inquisitive folk that walk in.”
Phil says that in addition to online sales and wine tastings, the lockdown has given consumers the chance to spend more time exploring different buying options away from the supermarkets and large national chain wine merchants. “In our business, and in many others, the pandemic has seen many people identify the great independents who offer a different level of choice and customer service,” he explained.
Phil is now looking forward, not back, to the new norm and the gradual return of life as we knew it. “Whatever happens, we don’t want to see business having to lockdown again,” he said. “We take a third of our income in the traditional pre-Christmas time of November and December. It would be desperate for bars and restaurants if that period was taken away from us. As it stands right now, we’re looking ahead with huge optimism from what has been a really tough time for everyone.”