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Just when you thought you were an agile business

Tracey Hawes is General Manager Marketing and Buying for Fine Wine Delivery and is the daughter of Jeff and Virginia Poole who started the business in the family home in 1997. Fine Wine Delivery was founded on the principles of passion, knowledge and an absolute dedication to selling great wine at the best prices possible. If they wouldn't drink it ourselves, they won't serve it to their customers - it's as simple as that. We asked Tracey if she could share some of her insights, learnings and words of wisdom as this incredible tight family business headed into and handled the Covid-19 crisis.

I’d be repeating untold numbers of reports on the unprecedented nature of the situation that businesses find themselves in as a result of Covid-19. I can only offer solidarity, compassion and hopefully some helpful learnings from our experience so far with you.

I’m one of the family owners of Fine Wine Delivery, a 22-year labour of love, drive and innovation. I head up the Marketing and Buying sides of the business. Like any start-up with limited capital and an exciting visionary approach, we have weathered a storm or two in our time. We have dealt with a failed expansion in the GFC of 2008 and we have reinvented our business to stay at the forefront multiple times (as recently as in the last 12 months). We have invested, reinvested constantly and been incredibly agile. Well I thought we were, no we were! This current situation is just next level.

Our Level 4 roller coaster

Whilst agile in a lot of ways, remote working for our team of 35+ people ranging from retail to warehouse and office was not common. We sent half our team home with clunky old PCs to set up to work from home. But would there be work?

We thought so, but it was so grey that we set about a complete shutdown. We ran down our stocks to a minimum. That same evening, we received notification we could trade online. We turned it all back on at a moments notice, ordered in hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock only to be told 48-hours later the rules had changed. After two insane days of trading we had to walk away without dispatching all the orders and in limbo.

The details are long but in essence an ill-informed decision had been made on the type of license holders that could sell alcohol, that left the doors open for just a few online retailers that had no retail stores, and a couple of Australian and UK based operators to continue. Much lobbying, as with all industries, ensued to get them to see sense, that queues seven blocks deep outside liquor stores in West Auckland was not the best way to service the market during lockdown.

We spent a week completely closed, but not still. We worked tirelessly on collaborations with suppliers holding these special licenses that we could partner with to open. We worked endless hours to get it going and at the eleventh hour, we got confirmation that online retailers with an off license could operate! In 24-hours we undid all the technical work collaborated on for the last week, geared up our team and got back in business.

We turned back on all those orders, our website and hired eight new staff from a restaurant owner we knew well to cover our staff that, for various reasons, couldn't work. We set up a three-shift roster (day, night and weekend) to observe strict distancing rules.

What we learnt

Customers showed masses of compassion from the get-go, exceptional patience as backlogs and courier capacities were overloaded. It took us two weeks to get to a level where we could handle the number of orders. We are online leaders in our industry, it is core to our business; but if you ever wanted to test your capacity and find out the weak points, Level 4 obliged. With inexperienced staff, couriers in a hot mess, we made some mistakes. Back orders for one. On a normal day these are fine, but when you are working at your highest capacity on a skeleton crew, not a good idea. However, our team built on their capacity for dispatch each day and we got there with a few battle scars on the way.

Customers shopped wildly differently. Where we would normally send communications and offers to our customers which would drive certain purchases, they were shopping broadly.

With time to scroll, they sought some adventure through one of the few indulgences they could access. Whilst a nightmare for warehouse efficiencies, it has also given us insight into how customers might like to shop instead of how we inadvertently tell them to.

Customers quickly wanted what they can’t have. Used to 24-48-hour delivery, they wanted their beverages for the weekend. Courier capacity just couldn’t oblige. Just for those rural customers out there, some of the rural drivers decided alcohol was non-essential…just saying. No matter how much ‘understanding’ there might be out there, largely we are all trained to get what we want, when we want it. If you can’t keep up, well there is no choice, you must keep up.

Collaboration amongst the industry is pretty crap. There are some excellent examples of where it has worked. Our collaboration with a supplier was a mutually beneficial arrangement that would see us both thrive. There were some excellent supplier and restaurant initiatives in place, how well they worked I don’t know, but they tried. Overall, between competitors, suppliers, growers, industry bodies, there was not a strong collaborative approach. We all kicked in with survival instincts to save ourselves (my god, if supermarket shopping hasn’t been an example of that, what more can I say). But the strength is in working together on creative solutions. Will that ever happen here, unlikely in our fragmented industry, but I hope so.

Level 3? Let’s take another loop on the rollercoaster

Whilst we could add a couple more people in the mix, it is much of the same but worse. Consumers on a shopping drought and with some unplanned savings in the bank had a full online shopping world reopened. The couriers experiencing higher than Christmas levels of demand have added 4-5 days to the delivery delays. Did I mention consumers were already shifting from ‘understanding’ to “now!”?

We held off for a week before introducing Click and Collect. Yes, we could have been a week sooner, but we learnt from Level 4, get ready first. I feel like a Girl Guide or Boy Scout preaching readiness, but it couldn’t be truer. Then just as we get it right, brace yourself for Level 2, but what does that mean?

A personal take, let’s be real

What’s really irked me over this time for businesses?

Whilst a Level 1-4 was sorted on how to shut everything down, where is the advanced notice of the tools for getting going again? We get a press conference a couple of days ahead to confirm the rules, then you can open in two or three days. Consumers chomping at the bit to shop with you. Those steps needed to be outlined so businesses could clearly plan, rather than guess what they can do and how to operate in these times. The communication bias for those at the table versus the masses of SME’s waiting on the side-lines with little insight doesn’t feel right.

We have been privileged to be able to trade in this time and feel like we have used that to the best of our ability.

  • Firstly, to support our local suppliers and businesses.

  • Secondly, to change the way we do business now and in the future.

  • Thirdly, to progress plans to evolve again as a business in whatever this new economy will bring.

“Out of adversity comes opportunity”.

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin, never a truer word spoken. Stay strong, keep agile, there is always a way to take your business to the next level.


Thank you Tracey Hawkes for taking some time out of a hectic time of life to share you insights and learnings which we know will be truly valuable to other retailers. Anyone reading this article, please feel free to support one of the best online wine, craft beer and speciality spirits businesses in NZ. They are a wonderful family and an awesome, progressive retailer.

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