The world’s oldest wine club*, The Wine Society, in the last financial year reached a turnover in excess of one hundred million pounds for the first time ever. As a not-for-profit organisation, with an active membership of over 140,000, The Society holds a unique position in the wine trade, existing purely to sell interesting, quality wines at the best possible prices to its members. Sarah Evans, Chairman, sums up the ethos of The Wine Society:
“… this way of working (whether you call it mutual or co-operative – we do both) really is at the heart of the way we do things here.”
2018/19 was a particularly tough year for wine and alcoholic drinks retail sales in the U.K, with consumption per head decreasing and many businesses failing. Against this backdrop, an increase in sales of 3% is very positive and The Society believes that it is its business model that frees it from many constraints that companies are bound by, allowing it to operate in a different way to its competitors.
The core principles on which The Wine Society is run can be summarised as follows:
- Profits are not maximised: profits are put back into fairer prices and better services for members.
- Members only: The Society sells only to members and does not compromise its principles by selling to restaurants or corporations.
- One share: a member can own a maximum of one share, so there are no unfair advantages for different members.
- Buyers’ integrity: The Society’s buyers are truly independent and only buy wines that they think members will enjoy and at fair prices.
- No pressure to buy: members are put under no pressure whatsoever to buy and are not up-sold.
CEO Steve Finlan highlights two core values which have helped make The Society flourish over its many years and will sustain it going forward: “Mutuality is many things, but authenticity and trust are the two qualities I would pick out. It is this authenticity and trust that, with the support of the members, will carry us through the next 145 years.”
As can be seen in the Annual Review attached, The Wine Society wishes to be “loud and proud about what we are” – to communicate widely and clearly what it stands for, how it works and how those involved in The Society perceive it, from the chairman, to wine producers, to the buyers, to customer service to delivery drivers to the members themselves. Please see some quotes below:
*trading for 145 years, since 1874.
“The Wine Society has become the finest example of a business in the 21st century that can succeed based on respect and valuing longer-term relationships,” Mac Forbes, winemaker of Blind Spot in Australia.
The Key Opinion Former:
“The Wine Society is almost certainly the best UK retailer for value – not cheapness, but real quality per penny’,” Jancis Robinson MW, Wine Correspondent for Financial Times.
The Wine Society Buyer:
“We’re able to vouch for every single wine we ship (we never buy from the dubious grey market) and our reputation for paying growers on time and negotiating fair prices (for our members and suppliers) means we are regarded with the utmost respect by the international wine trade,” Pierre Mansour, Head of Buying.
The Wine Society Member Services:
“A genuine connection with our members is so important. We won’t upsell a bottle of wine, or treat a higher-spending member preferentially and we’re able to give impartial honest wine advice because our advisers aren’t incentivised with bonuses or commission,” Isobel Cooper, Member Services Manager.
The Wine Society Delivery Driver:
“The Society is civilised, intelligent, friendly and unique. If the members are happy, then I’m happy too,” Austin Foley, Society driver since 1987.
The Wine Society Member:
“Everything is good about The Wine Society: the whole ethos of being a co-operative, the selection, the quality, the prices, the service, the tastings – the whole experience! I’m always recommending people to join – it’s a no brainer if you like wine!” Alison B, London
Chairman Sarah Evans concludes: “We are often told that we are a “best kept secret”. We used to be proud of that. But in today’s fast-pace competitive world, a best kept secret is a recipe for disaster. Instead we want to be loud and proud of what we are, to shout about what makes us special and unique, and to champion the joy of good wine.”