Founded by industry stalwart Albert Tan, Albert Wines & Spirits is a purveyor of fine wines and spirits. It is a distributor of popular whisky brands such as Highland Park and The Macallan, as well as an importer in its own right. Among the brands it brings into the country include the reputable Bollinger champagne and leading rosé producer Château d’Esclans.
To complement the existing business, it unveiled a digital platform last year where consumers can shop for their favourite drinks from the comfort of their homes. With the closure of bars during the Movement Control Order (MCO), the option to have beverages delivered is a boon to many parched souls. We speak with Albert on the uptake of their e-commerce site Albertwines2u, consumer responses during the MCO and taking wine tasting to the virtual plane.
The e-commerce and delivery service was launched last year. What was the rationale?
Albert Wines & Spirits was established back in 1992. Since day one, our main market has always been working with trade customers – on-trade (hotels, restaurants, cafes), off-trade (supermarkets, retailers, wholesalers) or even duty-free merchants. Meanwhile, we always have had private and corporate customers. They are served either individually by our sales team or they would visit our warehouse. With the launch of the e-commerce platform, it makes it easier for them to view our range of products and be able to place orders. We also want to have more interaction and education. On the website, they can easily research their preferred grapes, countries, regions, types of spirits, ratings, organic wines, along with the tasting notes and other recommendations to suit their palate.
We use our own company name (Albert Wines & Spirits) for the website as we are a well-established company. We only provide genuine products with duties fully paid – we guarantee the authenticity of all our products. We have our address, company registration detail clearly indicated on the website as a sign of transparency. There are too many fake products on the market unfortunately, and consumers should always check who and where they buy from.
As an importer and a distributor, how significant has the e-commerce and delivery service contributed to your business?
When we launched the website last year, we saw it only as a complementary service and a channel for us. We never expected it to overtake other departments in terms of volume, at least, not for a few years. Meanwhile, in March, with the onset of the MCO, we had to close all of our departments, except for e-commerce. We definitely saw a boom in the number of orders once we received our operational approval from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and it became almost the only channel for us till mid-May. Other departments are now slowly coming back on track. Most of our trade customers are feeling the pinch and trying to adapt to the new situation, so we are doing our best to support them as much as we can.
It is said people drink more at home during the MCO. Did you see any uptick in traffic in your e-commerce platform?
We know that many Malaysians enjoy going out for meals and probably a couple of drinks. If you are forced to stay home, you may still enjoy your Friday night G&T. So in that sense, our website’s traffic increased dramatically during the MCO (three times more compared to February’s) – the conversion rates were great and the order numbers spiked. We started the MCO period with just a handful of staff in order to limit the number of people in the warehouse (a couple in operation, one each in customer service and finance, with others working from home), but we had to bring more in at some point so that we were able to cope with the volume. We reached a lot of new customers but also had many repeat customers who came back after a few days or weeks to order more. It gives us the satisfaction that they are happy with the products, service and overall user experience – which is primordial for us.
What were some of the best-selling categories, products and brands? Did you see any change in the consumption habit?
We have over 1,000 different products available on the website. Except the most premium bottles which are sold stock across the board, there are wines, spirits, liqueurs, syrups, Fiji Water and even coffee beans. Our most popular products were the items we put on sale, as we offered very competitive prices on a lot of products in order to support our patrons during the difficult times. The bestsellers were our entry-level wines, but also a lot of spirits, such as gins, whiskies, rums, tequilas and vodkas. We also saw a surge of liqueur sales, like Cointreau, Campari, Triple-Sec and Jägermeister, and often coupled with other spirits. It shows that many were keen on making their own cocktails at home.
Did you experience any supply chain and logistics issues during the MCO?
As we have been operating for so many years, our stock is always ample. This is especially true for our own direct imported brands – most wines and some spirits. For others, which we are just an appointed distributor on the market (like Chivas, Roku Gin and The Macallan, amongst others), we had to manage the stock we had in-house. Once they were finished, we could not get anymore. Some products ran out pretty quickly, but we still had plenty of others to rely on.
The main issue we had during this period came from logistics, especially for delivery outside of the Klang Valley. We wanted to be able to deliver to all customers across the country and we worked with a few different logistics companies, in addition to our own delivery team (which serves the Klang Valley only). Meanwhile, mid-way through the MCO, all third-party logistics partners we used for delivery outside of the Klang Valley informed us that they couldn’t cope with the high amount of orders they had to manage, and that they couldn’t commit to us that ours would be delivered in an acceptable time frame. As we wanted our parcels to spend less time between our warehouse and customers’ doors, we were forced to stop taking orders from anywhere outside of KL and Selangor. It was disappointing for our customers. Thankfully, we are now back to normal.
You organise wine tasting classes with your resident wine expert from time to time, which now has been shifted to online. How has the response been? Will this be the way forward or will there be plans to resume in-person sessions?
Before the MCO, we organised many wine tastings, dinner events across the country, either guided by the representative from a specific winery visiting us, or our resident wine geek David Stephan. We even had one session planned on April 18, which we sold the tickets for.
Since the MCO started, we have been organising weekly sessions on Zoom for classes with brand representatives, but also winery owners who rarely travel across the world. We did with wine representatives from Tuscany, Bordeaux and Margaret River where they walked around the vineyards to show where the grapes came from. For spirits, we did the same with rum and Absente, which is our absinthe brand from Southern France. Each session we had about 30 to 50 people and it was free. Nonetheless, we encourage our guests to get a bottle from that particular estate so they can enjoy the full experience.
We may continue with this approach once the MCO period is over, in addition to our more “traditional” wine-pairing dinners and tastings, which we hope to restart very soon.
*Be a responsible citizen and refrain from drink and drive.