Online wine sales have "come of age" according to the commercial director of UK wine retailer Laithwaites, which has launched a new website to take advantage of the trend.

Online sales account for around 40% of Laithwaites' annual wine sales, compared to 30% a year ago, group commercial director Robert McCarthy told just-drinks late last week.

The UK-based retailer and merchant, which has specialised in selling wine direct to consumers via mail and phone order since 1969, has today (18 January) revamped its website to target a larger share of the growing online market.

Online has "come of age", McCarthy said, although he does not believe that the internet will spell the demise of more traditional sales channels.

"We have one million customers in the UK and paper is still important, the phone is still really important," he said. Laithwaites, he added, sees online as an "enhancement" rather than a replacement of existing business models.

The firm's new website has been designed to be more interactive with customers and will include video footage of winemakers, a new wine search tool complete with food matcher and a 'click to chat' facility.

Internet wine sales have performed well for several retailers over the last couple of years.

Wine retailer Majestic reported double digit rises in its most recent full-year, to the end of March 2009. Supermarket Tesco, which claims to be responsible for 40% of all wine website visits in the UK, told just-drinks last year that internet wine sales were up 8% year-on-year.

Research group Mintel said in its UK Wine Report 2009 that online wine sales have "real scope" to drive market growth.

Laithwaites' McCarthy said that average price per transaction is around GBP90 online (US$146), broadly the same as with its other sales channels.

The group has resisted an entry into the high street, although has recently set up in the retail space vacated by Majestic at London-based wine attraction Vinopolis.

Laithwaites' performance contrasts markedly with that of First Quench Retailing, the high street drinks retailer that collapsed into administration late last year.

McCarthy said that, rather than a focus on direct sales, Laithwaites has held up more firmly in the UK's recession because it offers consumers something different. "We focus on working really closely with winemakers. We are offering something that is different and is better than what you get in the supermarkets," he said.