Shop to find a drop

Shop to find a drop

The Whisky Shop is bringing whisky to a new market by mixing High Street marketing techniques with outstanding whisky. Dominic Roskrow spoke to Ian Bankier

Places | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55 | By Dominic Roskrow

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It’s a wet day out of season in the English tourist city of York. There are few people out and about but at The Whisky Shop, nestling in the city centre next to the Jorvic Centre, there is a steady stream of people.I’m chatting to Ian Bankier when he spots an ageing weather-worn couple who seem a little out of sorts. She’s looking round with interest, he looks like he’d rather be chewing a pair of sweaty old socks.Bankier offers the woman a Scottish malt whisky-based liqueur.“And can I tempt you with a malt,” he says to the man, who perks up a little. A minute later the woman tells her husband that if he likes the whisky that much she’ll treat him to it.“And that in a nutshell is how The Whisky Shop works,” says a beaming Bankier as the couple leave, the man clutching his purchase gleefully. “It’s amazing how many times it’s the woman who leads the way.” Chief executive Ian Bankier bought The Whisky Shop some two years ago at a time when its small number of shops were floundering. Since then he’s all but doubled the number of outlets to 10.New outlets in Scotland have now been joined by shops in Newcastle and York.And Bankier and his team aren’t cutting corners. The rent on the York site, in a primary retail location, runs to tens of thousands of pounds.“To survive here we have to use all the tricks of High Street retailing,” he says.“But with the English shops in particular I believe we are taking advantage of an untapped market and I think there is a great opportunity.” Up to 10 more shops are planned in the months ahead as the company seeks to reach a critical mass that would allow it top compete fairly with the big boys. Potential sites for new shops include Cambridge, Oxford and Solihull in the affluent West Midlands. London is a long term target but not, says Bankier, an immediate priority.But his philosophy is a simple one: target the sort of people who think they don’t like whisky and open the market up. To do that means cutting out the snobbery and elitism and making life simple for the customer.Glance around a Whisky Shop outlet such as the one in York and you’ll quickly get the picture. The design is contemporary, clean and minimalist. The far wall is back-lighted and features miniatures.To the left are casks containing independent bottlings of the likes of Deanston, Ledaig and even Macallan.To the right are the connoisseurs’ whiskies, everything from rare and discontinued distilleries through to a very reasonably priced Springbank.And just to make it easy for the enthusiast to take the plunge with one of the more specialist single malts, many of them are sold in 10cl, 20cl and 50cl bottles as well as the full one.“It means that someone can buy a special whisky perhaps to take and share with their dad without breaking the bank,” says Bankier. “At the same time they can experiment a bit and find out what they like.” But the best trick that The Whisky Shop pulls off is to kid you at surface level that it’s all a bit lightweight and then reveal its secrets in layers. First impressions make even the novice feel comfortable.Liqueurs are prominently displayed and on offer. Wherever you look you’ll see a Famous Grouse or a Bell’s – safe household names that make the vaguely interested feel that they are not swimming out of their depth. But spend a few minutes and no matter how well you know your whisky, you’ll find something to delight.The casks – all available for sampling – are another way of bringing the casual visitor to another level, and here the worlds of the relative newcomer and the connoisseur are brought together.The key element, says Bankier, is staff training.“Every person employed at The Whisky Shop understands what they are selling,” he says. “But most importantly they have to understand what the customer is after. It’s easy to scare people off.” It’s hard not to come away enthused by The Whisky Shop, and with a new wave of shops in the pipeline, it’s all good news for whisky.Nor does it end there because Bankier is prepared to listen to anyone who might want to open a franchise.“I’m very flexible about what they might want to do,” he says. “We’d provide the stock and our support and expertise with regard to selling whisky. I’d be happy to talk to anyone with ideas if it meant possibly getting to a new market.” It’s an exciting thought.And it could well mean that there could be many more hen-pecked husbands happy to go on shopping trips in the future.
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