Denmark’s independent wine retailers

The pandemic has had a mixed impact on Denmark’s wine market. While some have suffered terribly, other companies have found unexpected opportunities. Elsebeth Lohfert reports.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash  Copy to clipboard
Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash Copy to clipboard

Alexander Kidd, the 32-year-old new kid in town, has made sales explode on his new online platform in a way that might change the face of retail not just in Denmark, but in other European countries. And he’s done it in just one year.  

The idea arose by chance. He loved Champagne and invited friends to participate in a group purchase, so they could buy enough bottles to make the price affordable. All they had to do was pay in advance and reach the required order size. As soon as this offer was forwarded, Kidd’s mobile went crazy. The success was so overwhelming that it inspired him to create what is today Kobaj.com.

At kobaj.com the wine, the price and the producer are presented and customers can bid by saying how many six-packs they are willing to buy. The purchase only becomes a reality when the number of orders reaches 25 six packs, which is the number required to fill a pallet and have the wines transported to Denmark as cheaply as possible. The platform lets customers follow the number of orders, to see how close the purchase is to becoming a reality.  When the magic trigger limit has been reached within the specified time limit, the order will be forwarded to the wine producer, and only then will the payment be deducted from the customer’s credit card. The price includes all costs. There are no extra shipping rates, no ongoing membership fees and no hidden additional costs. When the wines arrive in Denmark, they are forwarded the same day to the customer.

Most wine importers have a uniform procedure for selecting new wines. Samples are ordered, they are tasted and judged, and then only a few wines pass through the eye of the needle to find their way to the price list. This has the good and bad consequence that the range reflects the importer’s personal taste. Kobaj initially chose their wines according to the same model – until they asked customers to bid on these potential new wines. Initially, the company assumed that some of the proposals wouldn’t work, as in the company’s opinion the wines weren’t very exciting. But then the wines were offered online and – to everyone’s amazement – the underappreciated bottles sold out, as they apparently had wide customer appeal. A new model for wine selection was born.

Today, all wines are selected by the customers, and the winegrowers themselves decide the price. This direct link between the end user and the producer created by Kobaj has been so successful, that Kidd now plans to expand within a half a year – to the Netherlands, Germany or even the UK.

H.J. Hansen Vin 

“We are affected by HoReCa,” says Peter Møller Andersen, the purchasing manager from H.J. Hansen Vin, referring to the impact of the pandemic. “It’s a big part of our business.” The stores, on the other hand, have significantly over-performed.  H.J. Hansen Vin sell wines across Denmark to HoReCa, business-to-business clients, and the national Vinspecialisten chain of 52 shops. Møller Andersen says that because the company is backed by the financially secure H.J. Hansen Group, it’s been “possible for us to help some of our pressured regular suppliers.” The company has bought more than usual and has either paid before delivery, or just after. “For example, some of our French producers have lost 70% of their domestic market in the restaurant sector. It’s an advantageous market for us and we have bought really big volumes for our warehouse, especially from Bordeaux.” He predicts that the increased turnover in the stores will continue, just as Christmas gift sales will increase, thanks to “companies buying bigger and more expensive gifts for their employees”.

Supervin

In 2012 Mads Jensen sold his grocery store in Hjørring, Jutland to the supermarket giant Salling Group. He wanted to focus on wine alone and develop his wine company, Supervin, established in 1998. In 2007 he went online and in 2013 opened a 700 m2 shop. Customer satisfaction, and selling good wine at a good price are the company’s core values. A cynic might say this is just marketing – except that Jensen means it. If a customer doesn’t like a wine they’ve ordered after tasting it, he or she can return all of the bottles. Supervin pays for the return shipment and refunds the order, including for the opened bottle. The effect has been “incredibly positive,” as Jensen puts it.

Due to the Covid lockdown he got a lot of new online customers and this, combined with the possibilities of buying favourably from producers all over the world, has made October a historical peak, with the highest number of bottles ever sold. “The producers are under pressure and we get some wild prices – buying is an Eldorado,” says Jensen. “We can now sell a wine from Burgundy for 99,00 DKK ($15.76) as opposed to the earlier 250,00 DKK. It’s difficult to be pessimistic. We have had a big growth in 2020; online sales increased 100%.” Jensen is about to overtake the previous decade’s most successful online retailer in Denmark, Christian Philipson.

Sigurd Müller Vinhandel

Sigurd Müller Vinhandel was established in 1975 by a group of restaurateurs who wanted a wine supplier of their own. Today the company has 379 shareholders with Ib Bergkjær, CEO since 2009, running the business with no formal limitations from the owners. Sigurd Müller sells 80% of their wine to hotels and restaurants and 20% to consumers and business-to-business clients. In Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city, they have a shop but no home page; instead, 9,000 newsletters are sent out five times a year to private consumers, while the 1,200 HoReCacustomers receive news and information every month. Included among Sigurd Müller’s producers are Romanée-Conti, Vega Sicilia and Biondi Santi.

After Denmark locked down in March, Bjergkjær sent home 21 out of his 36 employees. All of them are still getting their salary, in part because of the Danish government’s wage compensation scheme. By 9th June they were all back in the business, with summer sales in July, August and September surpassing 2019’s figures, as vacations along the Danish coastline became a popular alternative to the usual summer trips to Italy, France and Greece. “Then came October and we hit the wall,” says Bjergkjær. “I don’t think we have seen the worst in the HoReCa segment yet,” and he predicts there will be what he calls “cloudbursts of bankruptcies in the spring”.

Despite a sizeable chunk of 2020’s revenue “disappearing with the sewage”, he has increased his portfolio, and in accordance with his shareholders, and a solid economy, decided not to change the concept of the company by adding a new online arm.

Bichel

 “We are doing surprisingly well,” is the modest answer from Lars Bo Guldhammer Henriksen, co-owner and CEO of Bichel. In 2016 he took over the company when its founder, Gunnar Jacobsen died. The childless Jacobsen had prepared for this situation, making Henrikson co-owner and co-CEO in 2014. Henriksen was already a well-known figure in the Danish wine industry, backed by 27 years of experience, most recently as purchasing and sales director for H.J. Hansen Vin, one of the big independent wine retailers in Denmark. 

Henriksen has continued to build the Bichel profile, where wine is sold along with a wide range of gourmet products online. The company also had one outlet in the headquarter’s farm shop outside Aarhus, the second biggest city in Denmark. Henriksen has since, with the new co-owner Uffe Uhrenholt, expanded and they now have five shops spread around the country – the latest being in the fashionable Copenhagen suburb Klampenborg.

“We do not buy wine by the metre and we are not just a liquor store,” emphasised Henriksen. “We have time to talk to customers and the knowledge to guide them. We focus on the well-set table – the coupling of food and wine, and we burst with ideas on how to have a good experience when you have guests or just to pamper yourself.”

The day after the Danish Covid-19 lockdown began in March, Henriksen asked his employees to reduce their wages and working hours by 20%, for two months. This, he felt, gave him the freedom not to wait for government help, or be dependent on it. He also looked for new opportunities and observed that newspaper ads now cost a third of what they usually did, and were read twice as much. People had time to cook and make an effort and were willing to pay more for a wine than usual. Interactive virtual tastings and seminars also helped boost sales. So did the lowering of prices by the producers due to their Corona lockdown surplus. “And it seems to continue, and it’s probably getting worse,” he finishes. 

Denmark’s wine market at a glance

According to figures from Danmarks Statistik and VSOD, wine imports amounted to 161 m litres in 2019. More than half of it (55%) was bulk and 7% was re-exported. Red wine dominates, with 68%, and Italian red a favorite. Red wine and rosé are combined in the statistics, but it’s probably fair to assume that rosé is still trending upwards. White amounts to 32%, with Chilean whites in the lead. Italy has the highest market share with 22.3%, followed by Spain at 13.0%.  Chile holds 12.3%, France 11.9%, South Africa 9.8%, Australia 8.4%, USA 5.3%, Germany 5.0%, Argentina 2.6%, and others 9.5%.

Elsebeth Lohfert  

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