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Confessions of a retailer: Vinmonopolet

Martin Tønder Smith, product manager at Vinmonopolet, sheds some light on Norway’s only spirits retailer, which must navigate a dark monopoly market.

Martin Tønder Smith, product manager at Vinmonopolet

What sparked your interest in spirits?

I started tending bars in 1998, and an interest in the stories behind each bottle sparked something close to an obsession. I later worked as a spirits writer and spent 10 years importing and selling spirits before starting in my current position.

How are spirits sales in Norway different from other countries?

Norway is a monopoly market with one retailer for off­-licence sales, which is under government control. Also, there is a total ban on marketing and advertising alcohol. Vinmonopolet’s reason for being is limiting the harmful effects of alcohol abuse.

How do you select the products you stock?

Suppliers bid on the Vinmonopolet supplier portal and wholesalers are able to submit offers. All approved offers are tested by Vinmonopolet’s sensory testing laboratory, where a panel of experts assesses how each product matches the relevant specification. Purchasing decisions are based on price, sensory quality and the ability to deliver.

The purchasing process is the same for all products, including luxury ones, although we also have what we call our ‘speciality assortment’. Three product managers are in charge of this selection of products, which is available in flagship stores.

How would you describe your range of spirits?

It is, in general, quite traditional, which reflects the fact that Norway is a traditional spirits market. The main part of our basic range consists of vodka, gin, aquavit, blended whisky and Cognac.

As the only spirits retailer in Norway, are you under pressure to stock a wide range?

There is always pressure to stock more products, but our dynamic with the 500­ plus importing companies is one of the things that makes this a very interesting job. There is a demand that we do our utmost to ensure that we are on top of movements in the market, follow trends and cater to our customers’ expectations.

Are local and regional spirits important to Vinmonopolet’s portfolio?

Yes, because Norwegians are very supportive of their local spirits. The global mega-trend on gin didn’t really make any waves in Norway until some of our local guys started collecting prizes in international competitions. Suddenly the Norwegian gin drinker realised that there are some great gins being made here in Norway, then the ball started rolling.

What spirits sales trends have you noticed recently?

When a category has become a household item in the rest of the western world that is when you can see it start to make ripples in Norway. Whisky, including both Scotch whisky and world whisky, is a very interesting market to follow, where we have seen steady growth for at least the past five years.

What is the most challenging aspect of working at Vinmonopolet?

Having time to meet all the importers and producers who have interesting products to present to us. That’s because, without meeting all these guys I would lose out on a lot of information that I need to do my job. Travelling, meeting producers and tasting as many products as I can is something I would like to do more of.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Being able to work to improve Norwegians’ knowledge and understanding of spirits in general; trying to communicate taste and flavour in a language that is understood by as many as possible is intriguing. We believe knowing more about the products one buys leads to responsible consumption.

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