Laithwaites wines under two different schemes - Discovery and Mystery; the Mystery cases are an unknown batch of bin-ends with a minimum 1/3rd discount whilst the Discovery case is the first in a regular series of deliveries of what, presumably, are their showcase wines.
We worked our way through the mystery wines first and were able to approach them without any preconceptions. In practice, most were well-enough-made, but middling, with a small number of impressive ones plus a few real disappointments.
By the time we got round to the Discovery case (now re-branded 4 Seasons), I felt I had a sense of what to expect from a Laithwaites wine but also less inclined to put anything disappointing down to experience.
From the Discovery case, I found two of the reds disappointing (and overly sweet Shiraz and a thin Tempranillo) whilst one of the whites (a Romanian Pinot Grigio) was definitely sub-standard or faulty.
After finishing both sets of wines I decided to put Laithwaites "100% Satisfaction Guarantee" to the test and emailed them about the Discovery wines, also mentioning the mystery wines that we'd felt were a bit ordinary.
The guarantee itself is fairly straightforward - as the website says:
- If you're not fully delighted with any wine, we'll come and collect it and give you your money back. No quibbles, no fuss.
I was not sure exactly what to expect - a cringing apology followed by the proffering of a money-off voucher or a freebie perhaps ? (A money-off voucher or freebie seems to be Laithwaites automatic response to most things whatever the situation).
In fact, I got a reply the next day offering me a refund or an exchange. I was happy to take the exchange and a case of 10 wines arrived shortly afterwards.
Customer satisfaction guarantees were first brought in by retailers, especially supermarkets, who realised that the benefit of offering that level of certainty to the customer more than outweighed the cost of having to make an occasional refund.
Moreover, by monitoring returns, your customers would very quickly tell you which products they did not like or which batches had been spoiled.
UK supermarket Asda (now owned by US behemoth Walmart), for example, even goes so far as to offer a refund-and-replace guarantee on its own-brand products; if you don't like an Asda tin of baked beans, for example, they will give you your money back and replace it with a tin of branded stuff.
Given that there is zero marketing spend on Asda own-brand products, profit margins must be pretty healthy and the occasional refund-and-replace is quite cheap in the overall scheme of things.
There's probably a whole sociology and marketing thesis waiting to be written about retailer guarantees, but it strikes me that they are a great customer loyalty proposition; they force the retailer's buyers to think carefully about what they select and they give consumers the confidence to experiment and try new things.
However, customer satisfaction guarantees are best suited to homogeneous, familiar, everyday products - baked beans rather than caviar.
In the area of wine, ripe, fruity New World-type wines which are easy to quaff unquestioningly are perfect for this sort of thing.
However, some wines take a bit more time to appreciate - a great red Bordeaux is tough, tannic and chewy in its youth but matures to a wine of great texture and complexity that little else can match. It also generally needs to be consumed not only with food, but with the right type of food, to show its best.
Equally, Austrian whites (especially those from Styria) are bracingly crisp and can seem underripe to those accustomed to something fuller and softer, yet they are balanced, minerally and full with great texture and backbone.
Part of the fun of learning about wine is trying something new to see if you like it. Great wine should be complex, full of contrasts and, on occasion and to the appropriate extent, challenging. It's difficult to do that if you are committed to all your wines delighting all your customers all of the time.
And that seems to sum up Laithwaites - great if you want reliable, easy-drinking wines, but perhaps not the place to go for something more challenging and nuanced.
Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/