There are finely tuned fixtures and keen pricing, but who's spreading the good news? T he independent sector has been losing share of the beers, wines and spirits sector to the multiples for years but there are still many opportunities and room for manoeuvre. One group of Spar retailers which is not taking the supermarket onslaught lying down is Alfred Jones, led by chairman Jon Jones. The company is the biggest independent within Spar, with 54 stores and more openings planned which will take the number up to 60 in the near future. He says the drinks sector should be a focal point for retailers 52 weeks of the year rather than only when the sun shines and for distress purchasing around Christmas and other special events. Alcohol sales represent 18% of Alfred Jones £52m turnover and there are plans to increase its share by between 1% and 2% a year. He maintains that to build sales through the fixture is not a question of rocket science, but of common sense. "What is needed is well lit and merchandised displays and adequate facings of key brands." Jones says it is also essential to provide a chilled offering whether the weather is hot or cold. "Sales in our stores rise 30% when we have a good range of chilled beers." Doing the obvious has also paid dividends: "It makes sense to ensure customers know about special offers or good prices on multipacks and added value lines. Beers, wines and spirits are often bought on impulse so good signage and instore theatre is crucial." The impulse factor means much beer is still bought in single cans and Jones is keen to trade them up to larger pack sizes. This has meant making the most of added value deals and using offers such as eight cans for £5 or, on the wine shelves, two bottles for £5 and three for £10. "In an industry like convenience, where the average till ring is often less than £2.60, an extra 50p or £1 on regular transactions can equal a hefty extra profit across the year." Last Christmas he tried to go further on beer with 12 and 24 packs, but with little success. "We tried to trade people up to these but the multiples ripped the bottom out of this market. "In many instances in the symbol groups the retailers offer better prices and better value than the multiples or larger off licence chains. It is tragic that we are so often perceived as expensive when, in fact, we are very competitive. "We need to shout more about what we have to offer." Some independents use premium pricing because they can, and sometimes because they have to. But Jones says: "Insult pricing is uncommon and not the norm. In groups such as Spar it is not tolerated because of how that reflects on other members. "The bottom line is that we need to educate ourselves and our customers to the fact that our sector is fair and competitive." Nevertheless his alcohol sales in the pre-Christmas week were 38% up and there is a chance he can maintain that level this year. "We will get a full week's trade but it will depend on whether the multiples have to stick to the 10am-4pm opening hours on the Sunday before Christmas. That could be an opportunity for the independents." He does not under estimate the threat from the multiples. "They have recognised the benefits from extending their opening hours but now they are even competing with independents for sites and borrowing layout ideas and store formats that we have pioneered." The answer for him is to make the instore offer better. "The drinks fixture only works if the stock and the ranging is right. So many people stock rubbish that just stays on the shelf. I would rather have a much smaller range that looked good," Jones says. "There should be a core of must stock lines of the top selling brands complemented by a cheapy or an own label. "There is no room for the secondary brands in the middle. And the store has to look good. "Instore theatre is always a bonus and it's fun. A themed promotion attracts attention and something humorous rarely fails. If you stack it high, people will buy it whether it is cheap or not. "And the stores we are opening are slightly bigger and we are devoting more space to drinks, which gives us more opportunities for this sort of thing." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}