Farmer Bros collapse heralds big changes in liquor retailing

Canberra’s wine buyers are in for big changes this year following the collapse of the Capital’s largest wine merchants, Farmer Bros. Many of the changes were underway before the collapse, but the vacuum left by Farmer Bros’ demise will quickly be filled by players old and new.

Farmer Bros stores are about to be taken over by Liquorland, a division of Coles Myer, Australia’s largest liquor retailers. They moved quickly after a meeting of creditors recommended the Liquorland offer over one from Cellarmaster wines on Friday, December 16.

On Saturday morning, Shane Sinclair, a shareholder and former operations and purchasing boss for Farmer Bros, received a phone call from his new master, Craig Watkins, head of Liquorland. “I’ve bought back the farm for you, Shane. Pick up the accountants at Canberra airport Monday morning and take them to the office will you.” That’s the call as reported to me by Shane.

So, on Monday morning, Shane found himself walking in the same door he’d walked out of just a few weeks earlier.

That may appear to be the end of Farmer Bros after nineteen and a half years, but we may yet see David Farmer’s smiling face here again. In Sydney a few days before acceptance of the Liquorland offer, Terry Davis, head of Cellarmaster Wines, told me that if he lost the bid for Farmer Bros, he may still set up shop in Canberra trading under a David Farmer banner.

Whether or not David Farmer will play a role in such a venture, I don’t know. Regardless, Cellarmaster has a walk-up start here in Canberra having use of Farmer Bros mailing list, including around 4,000 Canberra wine buyers, recipients of Farmer Bros Wine Newsletter (first published in October 1978 but managed for the last few months by Cellarmaster).

And just to complicate things, Liquorland’s Craig Watkins tells me he has the right to use the Farmer Bros name. It may well become Liquorland’s third store brand following the successful launch of Vintage Cellars in more posh locations over the last twelve months.

Liquorland rides into town on a wave of change that has been transforming liquor (especially wine) retailing Australia wide. Canberra was unique. For historical reasons, Liquorland had been virtually excluded from the town with independent supermarkets picking up the market share in Canberra that in other cities was shifting to Coles (Liquorland) and Woolworths (Macs).

See how richly merchandised are the wine sections of some of our better-located independent supermarkets — Supa Barn in the Canberra Centre for example. Finally, when everyone is selling the same brands at the same price, convenience becomes a determining factor in where people shop. We’ve reached that stage now and the wine sales pendulum has swung towards well-located-and-stocked supermarkets.

If Liquorland initially missed out on the new spoils it now appears set to catch up on Macs, the liquor stores belonging to arch-rival Woolworths. In the last year, extended trading hours and top locations, by my guess, have pushed liquor sales away from independents into Macs. Sit outside the Macs attached to Woolworths Dickson and be amazed at the steady flow of traffic, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. And the Manuka location may not be far behind.

And then, of course, you have the surviving long-time independents, notably Jim Murphy’s Market Cellars and Cand Amber, and relative newcomer Georgas Liquor Stable. Not to mention a hundred licenced supermarkets across the A.C.T. and all the clubs and restaurants as well.

Just how all those independents weather the winds of change remains to be seen. Especially as it seems the Liquorland attack on Canberra may be countered by Cellarmaster and, a little bird tells me, The Wine Society.

Then there are the local wineries, plus the big mail order houses, Cellarmaster

Wines (operating several wine clubs) and the Wine Society all pumping quite big volumes of wine into Canberra homes from warehouses in the Barossa and Sydney respectively. These are topped up with dribs and drabs going direct to the consumer from hundreds of small wineries, and substantial volumes coming either by mail order, or returning in boots of cars, from aggressive Sydney retailers like Kemenys of Bondi and Kellys of Kogarah.

It all adds up to variety and competition for bargain-conscious wine drinkers. But the strength seems to have moved decisively away from independent operators into the hands of the big, well-capitalised, increasingly professional retail chains.

There will always be a role for the spontaneity and expertise of independents, but the operators will have to be good to move with the rapid changes now underway.