In the run up to the festive season just-drinks.com surveys the effectiveness and effieciency of the UK's B2C online wine websites. The results are very interesting. One of the oldest wine merchants in the world, Berry Bros. & Rudd, tops our league table, followed by the young upstart from Australia, Wine Planet. Giles Fallowfield casts his eye over the results.

The top two performers in our survey of on-line wine retailers could hardly be more different. One was first established in the seventeenth century and recently celebrated its tri-centenary, the other, a brash newcomer from Down Under, only opened for business in the UK market three months ago.

There are few wine merchants more steeped in tradition than Berry Bros. & Rudd, but the company has also enthusiastically embraced the very latest form of retailing and its website (www.bbr.com) outshone the other 14 contenders in our detailed survey of leading wine e-tailers. The closest competition came from one of the plethora of newcomers to this sector, which only went live in the UK in September 2000, although Wine Planet (www.wineplanet.co.uk ) is one of the two dominant forces in wine e-tailing in Australia.

While these two companies in some ways represent opposite poles of the wine retail spectrum, they both put first class customer service at the heart of their businesses and each has taken great trouble to design sites that are both easy and enjoyable to use, as well as being full of up-to-date information.

When a very large, well chosen and competitively priced range of wines are added into the equation, both of these players stood out from the crowd, although Majestic (www.majestic.co.uk) and madaboutwine (www.madaboutwine.com) were only slightly behind on points. These four together were some way ahead of the other contenders.

Supermarkets Performance Disappoints

The four major supermarkets we included performed at best limply, at least partly because none has a dedicated wine site from which you can order. In terms of delivery alone, ASDA and Tesco were ahead with a 24-hour turnaround on orders available. In terms of range however it was Waitrose and Tesco that scored best, the latter like Sainsbury also doing well on price, greatly helped by the fact it was operating some major discounts during the survey period. Sainsbury and ASDA were marked down partly because they had only a limited selection of wines from their stores available on-line, in the case of ASDA less than half the store range. ASDA lost further ground because its website isn't open yet, the present system it operates with a CD users install is ordering by email.

All four supermarkets websites suffered in comparison with the top performers in terms of site design and ease of use, although this is partly because wine is just part of a general home shopping site. Although Sainsbury does have a separate wine site within its www.tasteforlife.co.uk website (wineforyou), you can't as yet order wine from it and no date is fixed for when you will be able to. Given the announcement since the completion of our survey that Sainsbury and Oddbins plan a new joint venture to "drive the direct-to-consumer wine market" which they plan to launch "early next year" and will, according to Sainsbury's director of wine Allan Cheesman, include e-commerce, perhaps you never will be able to.

Waitrose scored highest of the four supermarkets because of its range, the separate wine site within home shopping, and the fact it at least gives a short, helpful tasting note about the wines available. Although Tesco carries a little information about the wines, it is very limited and the other two have no information at all on-line - you have to look up ASDA's catalogue or look at Sainsbury's other website to get it and then it's still sparse. Because of the lack of helpful information the supermarket sites, with the exception of Waitrose, are only really useful if you know exactly what you want. The only reason Waitrose wasn't further ahead of the others is that it does very little discounting and its delivery guarantee is unimpressive at 7 to 10 days.

Mail Order Fails to Deliver

The three worst performers were the two 'mail order' arms of Wine Direct, namely the Sunday Times Wine Club (www.sundaytimeswineclub.co.uk) and Bordeaux Direct (www.bordeauxdirect.co.uk -- note that Bordeaux Direct was renamed Laithwaites [www.laithwaites.co.uk] during the survey period) and WineandCo (www.wineandco.com) all three of which failed to make their deliveries within their two week 'guarantees'.

The wines ordered from Bordeaux Direct (now Laithwaites.com) and WineandCo.com each took over three weeks to arrive. These three companies were also marked down because you have to buy a minimum of a 12 bottle case and can exercise little control over what you order - they specialise in mixes which they, not the consumer, make up. The recommended wines, we took from the two Wine Direct companies were also dull selections, which offered very poor value for money.

WineandCo's case bought blind which gave us a 50% reduction in price and thus worked out at a low £3.42 a bottle (this figure includes the £5 delivery charge), turned out to include some real bargains like Alois Lageder's Terlaner/Sauvignon blend and Goldwater Estate's excellent Dog Point Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. We may, however, just have been lucky to receive these, as their discounted cases are made up from wines they only have small stocks.

The third and forth place contenders, respectively Majestic and madaboutwine.com, both scored well on the ease of use of their sites, and while the latter had more background information available to users and a bigger range, Majestic's prices were more competitive, with numerous discounts on offer. Majestic was the only site to score maximum points on delivery - it was free and arrived 17 hours after the order was placed, following a phone call to check we were in to receive it.

Of the five other e-tailers we included in the survey, the next highest placed was Virgin (www.virginwines.com) and the site improved hugely during the survey period and which offered some of the best value available on-line during the survey period with a free case of wine worth £65 given to everyone ordering a case of recommended wine.

This offer lasted until October 23, 2000 and its massive take-up probably explained why Virgin failed to meet is delivery promise of within seven working days by just over 24 hours. In any case, as a result Virgin refunded its £5 delivery charge, something it promises to do if it fails to make its target time. Generally Virgin's prices are not the lowest but the promise of more good offers before Christmas will attract users, even if the wines given away tend to be the big branded names, like Gallo, which are on the dull side.

ItsWine (www.ItsWine.com), Rouge & Blanc (www.rouge-blanc.com), Chateauonline (www.chateauonline.co.uk) and WineandCo (www.wineandco.com) came sixth, tenth, thirteenth and fifteenth respectively. Wine&Co shut down the UK delivery side of its operation during the survey period and changed its delivery promise from one to two weeks, however the wine purchased still took 23 days to arrive from France. When it did, however, the quality of the wine was surprisingly high.

The other three e-tailers all delivered within four days of ordering, Chateauonline being the quickest, but each of these three have weaknesses with their site, range or the competitiveness of their prices, or in some cases all three.

Our survey was inconclusive in the on-going 'bricks against clicks' argument, with the four front-runners being an independent wine merchant, a high-street chain and two dedicated e-tailers. What it did show is that the supermarkets have a lot of ground to make up if they want to compete in this sector and that quite a few of the new dedicated e-tailers have considerable room for improvement.

In our survey, which was conducted during September and October, we set out to test the performance of 15 selected sites against a number of carefully chosen criteria in an effort to produce results as objectively-based as possible. To this end we purchased a minimum of six bottles wine from each of the 15 sites, attempting where we could to make our own selection. We then rigorously tested the delivery performance of the companies involved against their various claims, or in a few cases 'guarantees', some of which proved worthless.

In selecting the sites to examine we looked at cross-section of those purporting to be major players in this sector, including the four major supermarkets offering a 'home delivery' service and from whom wine could be ordered over the internet.

Clicks versus bricks?

Two dedicated wine e-tailers were among the top four performers in our in-depth survey of selling wine on line. The overall results were, however, ambiguous in the on-going 'bricks against clicks' argument. The stiffest competition for Wine Planet (www.wineplanet.co.uk ) and madaboutwine(www.madaboutwine.com) came from the Majestic Warehouse High Street chain(www.majestic.co.uk) and the overall winner, traditional independent wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd (www.bbr.com).

This disparate quartet came well ahead of the other dozen websites we tested, although fifth placed Virgin Wine (www.virginwines.com) made considerable improvements to its site during the survey period, and with its "buy one case get another (worth £65) free" offer which ran for much of October, drew consumers' attention to this fast changing sector.

What the survey did highlight is that the four main supermarket contenders - Tesco, Sainsbury, ASDA and Waitrose - have a lot of ground to make up if they want to be seen as serious wine e-tailers, rather than just offering wine as a small part of a home shopping delivery service. Most of the other dedicated e-tailers also have considerable room for improvement and need to address various problems if they are to survive even in the short term with further new sites opening and more planned for early next year.

Where and how the dedicated e-tailers hold stocks of wine clearly effects the efficiency and financial viability of their whole operation and only those which have got this right are likely to succeed.

Given the company's advantage in this respect - it already has the wine and the distribution system in place - the relatively poor performance of the two arms of Wine Direct is even more disappointing.

Both the Sunday Times Wine Club(www.sundaytimeswineclub.co.uk) and Bordeaux Direct, failed to meet their two week delivery guarantees. In the case of the latter this no doubt was partly due to the changes taking place.

Additional folio: Addresses of the 15 sites tested and examined:

http://www.asda.co.uk
http://www.bbr.com
http://www.bordeauxdirect.co.uk now changed to http://www.laithwaites.co.uk
http://www.chateauonline.co.uk
http://www.ItsWine.com
http://www.madaboutwine.com
http://www.majestic.co.uk
http://www.rouge-blanc.com
http://www.sainsburystoyou.co.uk
http://www.sundaytimeswineclub.co.uk
http://www.tesco.com
http://www.virginwines.com
http://www.waitrose.com
http://www.wineandco.com
http://www.wineplanet.co.uk

Since our survey was completed several more sites have opened which may have been included, had they gone live earlier. These include www.everywine.com, www.winesmart.com and a new and improved Oddbins site: www.oddbins.com

Definitions of criteria:

USABILITY OF SITE: How easy the site can be navigated and whether software was needed.

QUALITY OF INFORMATION: Depth of information (ie tasting notes, food and wine matchings etc.) and special features on the site.

RANGE OF PRODUCTS: Number of wines available; range of key brands and own label; and specialist regions or brands.

PRICE COMPETITIVENESS: Comparison of popular branded products (such as Australian red blend, Grande Marque Champagne).

ORDERING SYSTEM: Method; easy and speed.

SELECTION OPTIONS: Mixed cases available; minimum orders; and can the consumer create his/her own mixed case.

DELIVERY: Service in general; delivery charges; assessment of companies' 'promises and guarantees'; and overall performance.

AFTERSALES CARE: How well and quickly companies dealt with problems and queries, by phone, fax and email. Policies on 'corked' wine, breakages and consumer satisfaction.

VALUE/OVERALL IMPRESSION: Given the price, range, level of service, just-drinks.com's overall rating on value for money and general impression of sites.

TOTAL POINTS

Store
Score /100
Berry Bros
77
WinePlanet
76
Majestic
74
MadAboutWine
73
Virgin
64
ItsWine
58
Waitrose
55
Tesco
54
Sainsbury
53
RougeBlanc
51
SunTimes
49
ASDA
48
ChatonLine
45
BordDirect
37
Wine&Co
29

Total Points

RESULTS SUMMARY

ASDA
Berry Bros
Bord
Direct
Chat
onLine
ItsWine
Mad
About
Wine
Majestic
Usability
2
9
5
4
6
8
7
Quality
2
8
6
5
5
9
7
Range
3
8
6
5
5
7
6
Price
7
6
5
5
5
5
7
Ordering
5
8
6
4
7
7
7
Availability
9
6
3
3
7
7
8
Delivery
9
8
0
7
7
7
10
After sales
5
6
2
4
6
5
6
Overall (20pts)
6
18
4
8
10
18
16
Total
48
77
37
45
58
73
74

Rouge
Blanc
Sainsbury
Sunday
Times
Tesco
Virgin
Waitrose
Wine
&Co
Wine
Planet
Usability
5
4
5
4
6
5
5
8
Quality
6
4
6
4
6
6
4
8
Range
3
5
6
7
6
7
2
9
Price
5
8
5
6
8
5
5
8
Ordering
5
5
6
5
6
4
4
7
Availability
8
7
3
7
6
5
5
7
Delivery
6
6
2
9
4
6
0
5
After sales
5
6
6
4
7
5
1
6
Overall (20pts)
8
8
10
8
15
12
3
18
Total
51
53
49
54
64
55
29
76

Summary Results

USABILTY OF SITE

Store
Score / 10
Berry Bros
9
MadAboutWine
8
WinePlanet
8
Majestic
7
ItsWine
6
Virgin
6
BordDirect
5
RougeBlanc
5
SunTimes
5
Waitrose
5
Wine&Co
5
ChatonLine
4
Sainsbury
4
Tesco
4
ASDA
2

Usability of Site

QUALITY OF INFORMATION

Store
Score / 10
MadAboutWine
9
Berry Bros
8
WinePlanet
8
Majestic
7
BordDirect
6
RougeBlanc
6
SunTimes
6
Virgin
6
Waitrose
6
ChatonLine
5
ItsWine
5
Sainsbury
4
Tesco
4
Wine&Co
4
ASDA
2

Quality of Service and Information Provided

RANGE OF PRODUCTS

Store
Score / 10
WinePlanet
9
Berry Bros
8
MadAboutWine
7
Tesco
7
Waitrose
7
BordDirect
6
Majestic
6
SunTimes
6
Virgin
6
ChatonLine
5
ItsWine
5
Sainsbury
5
ASDA
3
RougeBlanc
3
Wine&Co
2

Range of Products

PRICE COMPETITIVENESS

Store
Score / 10
Sainsbury
8
Virgin
8
WinePlanet
8
ASDA
7
Majestic
7
Berry Bros
6
Tesco
6
BordDirect
5
ChatonLine
5
ItsWine
5
MadAboutWine
5
RougeBlanc
5
SunTimes
5
Waitrose
5
Wine&Co
5

Price Competitiveness

ORDERING SYSTEM

Store
Score / 10
Berry Bros
8
ItsWine
7
MadAboutWine
7
Majestic
7
WinePlanet
7
BordDirect
6
SunTimes
6
Virgin
6
ASDA
5
RougeBlanc
5
Sainsbury
5
Tesco
5
ChatonLine
4
Waitrose
4
Wine&Co
4

Ordering System's Ease of Use

SELECTION OPTIONS

Store
Score / 10
ASDA
9
Majestic
8
RougeBlanc
8
ItsWine
7
MadAboutWine
7
Sainsbury
7
Tesco
7
WinePlanet
7
Berry Bros
6
Virgin
6
Waitrose
5
Wine&Co
5
BordDirect
3
ChatonLine
3
SunTimes
3

Selection Options

DELIVERY

Store
Score / 10
Majestic
10
ASDA
9
Tesco
9
Berry Bros
8
ChatonLine
7
ItsWine
7
MadAboutWine
7
RougeBlanc
6
Sainsbury
6
Waitrose
6
WinePlanet
5
Virgin
4
SunTimes
3
BordDirect
0
Wine&Co
0

Delivery

AFTER SALES SERVICE

Store
Score / 10
Virgin
7
Berry Bros
6
ItsWine
6
Majestic
6
SunTimes
6
WinePlanet
6
ASDA
5
MadAboutWine
5
RougeBlanc
5
Sainsbury
6
Waitrose
5
ChatonLine
4
Tesco
4
BordDirect
2
Wine&Co
1

After Sales Service

OVERALL IMPRESSION

Store
Score / 20
Berry Bros
18
MadAboutWine
18
WinePlanet
18
Majestic
16
Virgin
15
Waitrose
12
ItsWine
10
SunTimes
10
ChatonLine
8
RougeBlanc
8
Sainsbury
8
Tesco
8
ASDA
6
BordDirect
4
Wine&Co
3

Overall Impression