The art of selling wine Julian Brind doesn't want crude formulae or too many labels in the drinks department. He wants balance and variety across all price points, as he tells Tim Palmer Julian Brind's comment that "wine is an art form and should be allowed to express itself" is not the sort of thing you usually expect to hear in a buying department. And such sentiment probably would not have been allowed to flourish anywhere else but Waitrose. But then Brind is not your usual buyer. And Waitrose is not a typical drinks retailer. "What is wonderful about working for Waitrose is that they have left me alone to do my own thing," he says. "If you are taken on as a buyer you are expected to do the job and there is little interference. There are very simple sales and profit targets to hit." As head of buying for wines, beers, spirits and tobacco at the chain, Brind is in charge of one of the most respected drinks departments in the business. Marketers may wince, but much of that success is due to the fact that Brind and his team have eschewed many of the buying practices that are common in rival operations. That's why fewer than 10% of the wines Waitrose stocks are own label and also helps explain why it is no big fan of big brands (for instance Piat d'Or has no place on its shelves). "We have had a long battle to stop own label invading the shelves," Brind says. "But we also think wine should not get too branded. Its fascination is that it is not a standard product." That does not mean Waitrose is completely closed to the idea of own label. Styles such as Claret and Côtes du Rhône are brands in their own right and speak out above the umbrella of an own label moniker. Waitrose also sells own label champagne highly successfully and at prices much lower than the grand marques. "The most important thing is the balance of the assortment," Brind explains. "You have to offer good value across all price points. There should not be just cheap and expensive; you have to do this by feel." This approach to the business has resulted in a stream of constant innovation. Brind brought in New Zealand wines nearly 20 years ago, for instance, when most people were still only interested in European styles. "I had a few sleepless nights wondering if I had done the right thing, but that was the beginning of the New World phenomenon," he says. "But we won't do things just because they are way out. We want to stretch the boundaries, but the wines have to be the right quality, they have to be typical and they have to be good value." That was why Brind went down to southern France long before anyone else and brought back the forerunners of the wines that became the vin de pays revolution. But innovation is only part of the story. Another reason why the Waitrose wine department is so successful is that everybody working in the team ­ from Brind down to the those working in the branches ­ is so enthusiastic about what they do. "Because everyone here is a partner it makes a huge difference," Brind says. "People in the branches who are dealing with customers are interested in whether they are satisfying the shoppers because they feel it is their business." Brind has taken this one step further by getting involved with the training of wine specialists in the stores, which has had the added benefit of providing knowledgeable feedback from the shop floor. The specialists are usually staff in the wine departments who are interested in the subject. Waitrose encourages them to take the Wine and Spirit Education Trust certificates and will help them get the Diploma if they wish. The training programme was started about two years ago and now about 75% of stores have a specialist. Brind has three senior buyers on wine and one, Derek Strange, for beers, spirits and tobacco. Strange is responsible for half the turnover of the section and has just become the International Wine and Spirit Competition's spirits buyer of the year. Brind says: "Beer and spirits are more like grocery buying. They are manufactured and they can make as much as they want. Wine is different because every harvest is different and it is a constantly moving marketplace. You have to choose the best wines each vintage." This is why he believes regular tasting should be sacrosanct. He expects the team to taste the wines, beers and spirits on a daily basis. That includes everything that comes out of bond prior to going on the shelves and all the potential new wines. In addition, the Waitrose selection is regularly tasted against products from the competition. The selection process is tough. Out of an initial 100 wines, the final tasting may be down to 20, of which maybe only one will make it on to the shelf. It's this sort of attention to detail that has helped Waitrose's drinks team carve out such a strong reputation. And, as Brind says, the proof is in the pudding. "Relative to our size we sell more wine than the competition," he says. "That's because we offer something different." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}