Expertise

Where’s my wine? Navigating the new normal: Sarah Knowles MW on global logistics challenges

Buyer Sarah Knowles MW explains why you may be seeing expected arrival dates of your favourite wines being put back and what our merchandising team are doing to avoid this.

Cargo ship at sea

We don’t often talk about logistics…

I have worked for a number of different drinks companies in the UK, and usually the logistics, shipping, regional merchandising team (it can go by many names and often crosses internal departments) are the unsung heroes of a business.

Their success if often judged by them going unnoticed, as that’s when everything is flowing smoothly: goods arriving in time, orders being turned around quickly, warehouses remaining well stocked. The team at The Wine Society are second to none.

However, over the last 18 months this team have perhaps been tested to the limits by an unprecedented set of circumstances. Like swans, they have continued to exude an air of graceful calm and control while paddling madly beneath the depths.

Since we all began working from home last year the team were forced to crank up a gear, delaying hundreds of purchase orders to allow us to get to grips with running a reconfigured, socially distanced warehouse operation. This was swiftly followed by the issuing of many more purchase orders to meet the spike in demand as we all (very sensibly) stockpiled what really mattered to us (toilet roll be damned – lockdown without The Society’s White Burgundy would have been bleak).

The pandemic also meant a shortage of international truck drivers, a situation compounded by delays around Covid testing at borders as the world worked out how to manage these new challenges. You probably heard too about the shortage of containers, or their not being in the right place at the right time due to normal shipping plans being so disrupted by the interruption to goods production and trade the world over.

Then came Brexit, which regardless of one’s personal viewpoint created an additional step in the process for all orders out of the EU, namely Custom Clearance. Previously orders from Europe could arrive in Dover at 8am and be delivered to our Stevenage HQ by lunchtime the same day, while ‘deep sea’ non-European orders would take on average around a week to clear customs checks.

Workers at a quayside, waiting for cargo ship to dock
Following January’s departure from the EU all European shipments need to be cleared through customs overloading the ports with the average clearance time on all orders, European or otherwise, taking three or four weeks, adding a considerable and often unpredictable delay.

Following January’s departure from the EU all European shipments need to be cleared through customs overloading the ports with the average clearance time on all orders, European or otherwise, taking three or four weeks, adding a considerable and often unpredictable delay.

Other factors complicating the job and muddying the water (sorry) for those involved in managing logistics include:

  • A lack of physical containers (mainly deep sea, as mentioned above) to load wine into, generally attributed to the changes in global shipping over the last 12 months.
  • Port congestion worldwide, partly due to Covid working conditions, which mean vessels have delays in getting berthed, then some are missing the stop if the delay is too protracted.
  • Lack of HGV drivers, affecting actual shipping from Europe, and the onward delivery from port-side shipper depots to our warehouse.

Of course, shipping and global shortage issues are complex and we see it in different guises. Not only are some of our orders taking considerably longer to be delivered than we were used to, but all the component parts our suppliers need are also getting delayed: from glass shortages in South Africa to fumigated pallet shortages in Italy, they are all combining to create somewhat of a perfect storm for our poor logistics team and their counterparts overseas.

However, without bias, I have to say that we seem to be winning more battles than many on these fronts. With a stable online range of over 1,400 wines available to members, this Wine Society team are clearly not to be messed with! They don’t easily roll over and lay down when it comes to getting members their wines. However, I hope this may explain why a particular favourite wine of yours’ ETA date seems to keep creeping, or when an offer opens with a few straddlers left behind. Be assured the wines are on their way and we have the best people on the job. And do please continue to place back orders for your wine – we’re doing everything we can to get it here as soon as possible!

Hopefully, now when you see headlines such as ‘Army on standby to restock Britain’s shelves amid truck driver shortage’ (The Telegraph, 8th August 2021), ‘Where have all the lorry drivers gone?’ (The Times, 7th July 2021) or  ‘British ports say they are not ready for Brexit customs checks’ (The Guardian, 7th, March 2021), you will spare a thought for our unsung heroes who keep our cellars stocked!

Oh, and did I mention that floods in Germany can delay wines from Italy?

Sarah Knowles MW

Society Buyer

Sarah Knowles MW

Sarah joined The Society in March 2014 and has taken over responsibility for Champagne, North America and Italy, as well as overseeing our portfolio of sparkling wines and spirits. Sarah passed her Masters of Wine qualification in 2015 and won a prize for submitting the best research paper.

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