Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Marks and Spencer Review

As an American in the UK, there are a lot of things that I see as being completely different from their counterparts in the US. Sure, they call fries here "chips" and chips here "crisps". And aluminum isn't "al-loo-min-um" but rather "al -loo-min-e-um". Yeah, those are all true. But one of the biggest differences is in drinking culture. More specifically, the route in which you can get beer, wine, cider, or spirits. As in the US, the UK does a fairly bristling on-trade (bars, nightclubs, etc.) business but one of the most striking differences in beverage purchases is the off-trade in stores and such. In the US, when I want a bottle of wine, spirits, or beer/cider, I have to hop in a car. I drive to the store, browse the selection, pick out what I want, buy it, and drive home. Then I drink it, usually while surfing the internet and talking on Twitter. In the UK...I can get it delivered to my door. And in the UK, as long as I have valid ID, they'll deliver it anywhere. In the States, some states frown upon buying liquor online and having it sent to your house. Here in the UK, I can get a bottle of scotch and a case of beer with my bread, butter, and ground beef.

A bit ago, Marks and Spencer approached me to write a freelance editorial for them on the Food and Wine section of their website. I was happy to oblige. Not for the money, no. But rather it is a easy way to illustrate one of the biggest differences in the UK. So, let's investigate, shall we? Below is a screencap of their website:

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First off, you can see they have a pretty wide selection of wines. They cover the gamut of types (red, white, rose, sparkling/Champagne) from a variety of countries (Portugal, Spain, USA, etc.). It is nice to be able to browse a good wine selection online and then have it delivered to your door along with the groceries for the week. But delving deeper into this you can see another trend in the UK that's RARELY seen in the US. To start, let's pick red wine:

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Now let's go with something I'm more comfortable with in terms of knowledge. Let's choose USA:

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You can see that they have a small offering of California reds available. There's a Ravenswood Zinfandel 2006 (top row, 3rd from left). It is one of their standard bottlings. They also have a variety of Bonny Doon wines. Let's choose the Central Coast Syrah 2008:

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Looks like their standard bottling, right? Look closer:

Okay, let's go back to the main page and hit up some white wines:

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And then Chardonnay:

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Then France:

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Let's be gentle and meek here. I'll narrow it to a pauper's wine. £200 - £299.99:

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Mmm, a Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Leslumeux 2009. A cracking vintage (?). Either way, a standard bottling by the Domaine Jean Pascal et. Fils. But what of the other bottling, the Chablis Grand Cru Grenouille 2006? Check it out:

As you can see...they're PROPRIETARY bottlings. Bottlings done specifically for Marks and Spencer. You don't see that in the US. At most, you may get some bottlings by Trader Joe's that don't release the name of the wine. For these wines, no only is it a branded wine endorse by M&S but they go into where it's made, what's in it, and who made it. Check out the beer and cider section here. All proprietary, exclusive bottles for Marks and Spencer.

One of the most interesting things in the UK, I've found, is store brand alcohol. And it's not just limited to wine, beer, and cider. Marks and Spencer has it's own brand of port, sherry and spirits (not on the website but available in store). They're cheaper than their equivalent on the shelf, generally the same quality, and they even TELL you who makes's just got the Marks and Spencer approval on it. And that is something I can get behind. I dunno if it's legal in the US but if it's not, I sure wish that would change. Store brand alcohol that is the same quality and even same name, but lesser prices? The Scottish blood in me enjoys the hell out of it.

So thank you, Marks and Spencer, for not only giving me the opportunity to talk about my experiences here in the UK but to enlighten my readers as well. And hey, recouping some hosting fees don't hurt either.


  1. M&S is a bit of a special case, though - almost all of their products are own brands. It's quite strange to find the manufacturers name on their other products, but in more recent times they have started being more transparent on their booze. It's not total yet, check out some of their beers (although far from all these days) for anonymous brewers, but is increasing.

    Wine is one category where you will see this happen a lot and most supermarkets have bottlings with their name on. I suspect this is in part due to the buyers having close relationships with the vineyards and thus getting exclusives. However, the other way of looking at that is that the supermarkets buy up entire bottlings (at massive discounts...) and then get their own label on the bottle as theirs is the only shop who can sell it.

    Store brand alcohol isn't quite so hailed outside of the wine category (M&S excepted again) with beer, spirits and the like (with a couple of exceptions - Aldi Cromwell Gin is meant to be rather good and Brewdog used to do a bit of secretive contract brewing for someone, I think) generally being rubbish, and anonymous.

    US liquor sales are just weird though :)

  2. Hey, so I'm looking over this and I'm fairly impressed. I love this ability in the UK and I could also get behind it in the US although I doubt it'll ever happen.

    While it might fly in states like here in NY where they are loosening regulations to allow some wine sales in grocery stores and beer sales are allowed not just in your grocery store but everywhere anyway (Stewarts, 7Eleven, anyone?) But states like, for example, PA (where I just moved back to NY from, so it's gonna be my comparison) are so almost-anti-liquor-sales in the first place... In PA not only can you not buy *any* kind of liquor in grocery stores but beer is sold only by the case from beer distributors. If you want only a bottle or two or a six-pack you have to go buy it from a bartender at a bar or restaurant. (Forgive me, I'm a NewYorker- that is ridiculous.) And the beer distributors, by state *law*, can only sell beer. If you want wine or any other liquor you must go to the 'Wine and Spirits' store; a state-wide chain (I assume, though I don't know, that it's owned/operated by the state) that, as far as I know, is pretty much the only place you *can* get wine/liquor in PA.

    That said, if they and other states have laws this strict now, I feel safe to see that we'll probably never see equal-liquor-sale-laws in the states and, if the sale standards aren't going to be equal, then it's not going to be worth it for big grocery chains (like Hannaford, Genuardis or even Stop 'n Shop) to attempt to start any such program. And without a push from retailers...well, I think this will be staying a UK phenomena for a good long while.

    And... that wasn't even what I was going to comment about. What I wanted to ask was what the UK-customers perception of this branding is. While I *know* that M&S is *miles* (kilometers?) away from Wal*Mart, that's what 1st lept to my mind.

    We all know that Wal*Mart brand is often cheaper and, probably, of equal-ish quality but there's a lingering...impression, I suppose that Wal*Mart brand is...less, somehow. Is there anything to that in M&S? Or does the fact that M&S is such a 'higher' brand negate those feelings?
    (For that matter, maybe the negativities associated with 'store brand' are American?)

    Thoughts? Ideas?



  3. Most store brands in the UK are looked down upon, but M&S has always been a 'sign of quality'. Both in advertising and in most cases in fact - most of the supermarkets (as M&S has never really billed itself as one) now have 'Taste the difference' or 'Finest' ranges which I reckon have been very much influenced by M&S. M&S's entire store is billed as being better than the rest, whereas the supermarkets have one brand of many (as they all also have a basic brand that is cheap, and generally rubbish) which they put that focus on. Basically - M&S is special :)

    And their food advertising is pure porn:

  4. I visited Marks and Spencer's shop before, and they really have a wide variety of wine products and other liquors. I was compelled to buy one. I bought a red wine which tasted great. Anyway, one of my favorite wines is the Chardonnay from Australia. Aroma makes this wine the best.