The first in our supermarket buyer interview series. Aldi wine buyer Mike James talks to Wotwine? and reveals the key to their success.

Mike James

 

Aldi and Lidl have lit a firecracker under the bottoms of the major UK supermarkets prompting a retail revolution and forcing them to dramatically re-evaluate how they do business. Wotwine? talks to Mike James, wine buyer at Aldi about the journey that has brought them such success, and their plans for the future.

 

Though he did not start in wine, for a long time wine lover it is perhaps no surprise that his passion eventually became his job. Mike assumed the mantle of wine buyer 5 years ago, and was determined to convey his passion for wine to his customers in a way that was easy to understand.

 

The first change he made was to clearly define the quality tiers of the wines to simplify the customer journey, this clear communication is something he sees as severely lacking in supermarkets in general. Having a small range made this process easier, ensuring each wine delivers; there is no room for lurkers on the Aldi shelves.  These clearly laid out quality tiers enable consumers to explore and to educate themselves in the increasing levels of complexity in the premium wine offering should they wish.  It is a simple philosophy that is surprisingly rare to find.

 

Starting with the core range, each wine was examined to ensure it delivered on its stated goal. Trust with the consumer is developed on the simple ethos of quality, consistency and value for money.  However, as the Aldi demographic began to evolve, Mike saw an opportunity to start developing a more premium offering and so the Exquisite Collection came into existence.  It started with just 7 classic wines with strong, recognisable branding in the £5.99-6.99 bracket.  As with the core range, once the trust was established, they were able to broaden and diversify the wines under the Exquisite Collection umbrella giving the customer the opportunity for low risk exploration.  Avoiding selling the big brands forced them to ensure their own label wines delivered on every level as there was no safety blanket provided by a well known label.

 

Their reputation for quality and value continued to grow, and Mike saw the opportunity to grow the premium range further, taking the customer on a journey into exciting regional wine such as Priorat in Spain and Coonawarra in Australia with their newly launched Lot Collection. Again clarity of message has been key with individual neck tags explaining about the region, while individually numbered bottles indicate that they are small volume wines.  At £9.99 however, they are still keeping a keen eye on value.  Earning the trust of the consumer has not come overnight, but slowly the ethos of honesty, transparency and integrity in pricing and quality seems to be paying off.

 

The question on most people’s lips is how on earth they achieve their low prices. Are they simply buying in the dregs that no one else wants?  It is clear from tasting the wines that this is not the case.  Mike explains that low overheads, a small, efficient range and strong, lasting relationships with the suppliers are key to their competitiveness.  He firmly believes promotions are a disservice to the customer as they warp the reality of the wines’ worth.

 

And what of the future? Unsurprisingly Aldi will not be sitting on their laurels.  Aside from their move into online retail in the new year, Christmas will see a refocus on high quality classics while, looking forward, Mike looks to the on-trade to see what new trends are developing.  It sounds like we can expect to see some new wave South African wines which “are exciting, versatile and great value” coming soon.  They are also using their strong supplier relationships to hold back some wines until they have matured, offering consumers the opportunity to buy wines when they are tasting at their best.

 

So Aldi have a very clear philosophy and are obviously practicing what they preach with great success. But what about the man behind the range?  His situational wine choices paint a lovely picture of the down-to-earth, talented wine buyer that is Mike James:

 

What is your death row wine?

Champagne; I might as well celebrate life and go out with a pop! Wine is about taste transporting you back to a memory, so it would be the Dom Perignon Oenotheque 1996. It was so different and unique.

 

What is your guilty pleasure wine?

Beans on toast and a great bottle of red wine… basic British food with something really special like Scarla Dei from Priorat.

 

What is your desert island wine?

White Burgundy… Corton-Charlemagne from 2010

 

If you could invite 4 celebrities to dinner who would they be and why?

  • I love wildlife and am an intellectual at heart so Charles Darwin.
  • Chris Froom;. I love road cycling and hugely admire his dedication and his lack of showmanship.   He is in inspiration.
  • Wine is obviously a big part of my life so it would have to be Jancis Robinson MW. She always has her finger on the pulse of the commercial reality of wine and is always approachable in her style. And she would certainly hold her own with Darwin!
  • Finally Bear Grylls, he is amiable, clever, passionate and has an amazing lifestyle… and I promised my wife he could be invited!5 Best Value Aldi wines:

 

The Wotwine? top buys

  • Cremant de Jura NV, France; worth £14, RRP £7.29
  • Aldi Exquisite Collection Hunter Valley Semillon 2013; worth £8, RRP £6.99
  • Jean Bouchard Montagny Premier Cru 2013, Burgundy; worth £16, RRP £12.99 (in stores from 16 Nov)
  • Aldi Exquisite Collection Malbec 2014, Argentina; worth £8.50, RRP £5.99
  • Amarone La Sogara Riserva 2010, Italy; worth £25, RRP £22.99 (in stores from 16 Nov)