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Published:  23 July, 2008

Jean Franois Deh, General manager, Phillips Newman Wine Merchants, South Kensington, London. Interview: Josie Butchart

Phillips Newman Wine Merchants 142 Old Brompton Road South Kensington London SW7 4NR Tel: 020 7373 6833 e-mail:

In May, Unwins opened its first Phillips Newman store on a former Unwins store site in South Kensington, London. It has already seen a 25% rise in sales compared to the same period last year, when it was trading as Unwins. A second Phillips Newman store is due to open in Northcote Road in Battersea later this month. Jean Franois Deh was an area manager for Nicolas, where he worked for seven years before joining Phillips Newman. He gained his initial retail experience working for his family's patisserie in Sydney, Australia, and has also worked as a TEFL teacher.

What was the reaction from customers when you opened as Phillips Newman? The first reaction was very positive, and customers have told me they think the shop is beautiful. But there are a lot of people who still think of the shop as Unwins - all the locals who have been coming here for the past eight years. Other people think that we are very different and don't realise we belong to Unwins, but we are simply a part of Unwins that likes to do things differently. We like space, we like light, we like colour, we like wines to be simple. We buy wine for pleasure and think it should be fun. Most people understand we are not going to do things the Unwins way and that is good, because we need to move forward.

What differentiates Phillips Newman from other wine shops? The first thing we do is take people up to our tasting table. We are not stuck behind the counter, and we go up to customers as soon as they walk in. Our concept is very simple: it's all done by taste category. We split the wines into categories and encourage customers to try a wine from each category at our tasting table, to work out which style of wine they like best.

Do customers usually agree with your category descriptions? Sometimes people disagree and say, for example, that they think a wine is bright' rather than smooth'. It's just a matter of taste. The category descriptions work for over 95% of customers. Two weeks ago a customer came in and said he had thought he liked a rounded style of wine, but he hadn't enjoyed the wine he had chosen from that category because it was too oaky. Rounded' for him indicated a wine that is soft, but rounded' as a category means the wines are soft and buttery but at the same time can be rich and oaky and tannic. It can be a problem when somebody misunderstands what the category means. After tasting together, we discovered that he should avoid oaky wines and go instead for bright' wines.

What else do you do differently? We have only about 230 different wines in the store, rather than the 600 to 700 wines found in most traditional off-licences. That's because in most off-licences only about 200 to 300 of the wines really sell well and around 100 to 200 wines sell very occasionally. The rest hardly move at all. Stock-wise, that doesn't make sense.

What if a customer is looking for a bottle of something less mainstream? The beauty of the concept is that there are fewer wines to choose from, which makes it easy. But if a customer is looking for a specific wine, we will try to source it for them unless it is a wine that they can buy for 4.99 in the local supermarket. We had a customer in just the other day who was looking for Duckhorn and Solaia, which we don't stock, and we sourced those for him. Just because we don't have it doesn't mean we can't get it.

How does Phillips Newman compare to your experience working at Nicolas? It is totally different because here we stock wines from all over the world, whereas at Nicolas we only had wines from France. I always tried to get a small range of non-French wines into my store at Nicolas, but that is difficult when you work for a company that sells 98% French wines. The Nicolas store layout can also be daunting for customers because it is very traditional, with wooden shelving and fine wine displays, and people assume it will be expensive. People sometimes have the impression it will be expensive here but, once you walk them through the shop, they soon realise we have wines to suit every budget and taste.

How are sales so far? Sales are up on when it was an Unwins store. The difference is that we now sell mainly wine, whereas before 65% of sales were cigarettes and beer. We are also not doing deals on beer, which were quite prominent in the past. There is not a single money-off' sticker in the store; we would like to avoid that completely.

Is it easier to sell wine here? It is a lot easier, because at Nicolas we had to take people through the wines by region. That was difficult, because when you take someone to the Bordeaux section, to choose a wine from St Emilion for instance, how do they know which of the wines are fuller and oakier and which are lighter? As store manager I didn't always know myself, because it is a section that has 120 or so wines and I couldn't taste them all. Here, even if I haven't tasted a wine, I know which wines are going to be full, rich and chunky, or soft, mellow and fruity.

Some people have said that your concept isn't really that new. It's not a new idea as such, but actually placing the wines in categories and describing them entirely by taste is very new. The concept has to stay simple: it is about making the act of buying wine easier.