The best sites make it quick and easy for you to browse a wealth of exciting wines, as they provide a simple navigation system, helpful filters and a user-friendly layout. You can then make your purchases with a few clicks, and the wines will arrive at your door rapidly.
It is easy to see why online retailers now account for more than £1 in every £4 spent on goods in the UK. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the ecommerce channel has enjoyed exponential growth over the past decade, increasing its market share from 9.5% in July 2013 to 26.1% in July 2023.
The UK is now the world leader for online shopping, ahead of Germany (19.6% share), the Netherlands (19.2%), the USA (18.8%) and Sweden (16.7%), according to the Centre for Retail Research. It had been steadily growing for years, but the Covid-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated the trend towards online shopping.
However, it can be tricky to navigate the complex world of online wine retail, so read on for some tips on how to simplify the process.
Buy wine from a trusted retailer
It is important to only use reputable online retailers that can be trusted to process your order correctly and send the bottles promptly. Ensure that they use the correct packaging to protect the wine during transit, and ideally, make sure they take steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
‘Buying online might be the most empowering channel, but it still needs savviness,’ says wine writer Richard Hemming MW, who previously worked in retail at Majestic.
‘Some of the most visible ecommerce wine sites are brokers, who don’t necessarily hold stock and may therefore have a long fulfilment time, while others are based abroad, which can cause unexpected headaches with shipping and customs payments.’
You can circumvent those issues if you buy wines at an established, high-quality ecommerce site based in the UK. The Wine Society stands out as an elite online wine retailer, which is favoured by many within the trade. Naked Wines is another popular choice.
Smaller operators like House of Townend and Perfect Cellar also offer a very impressive service, which powered them to success in the Decanter Retail Awards.
‘Much like buying wine from an independent store, the hard work is choosing where to buy online,’ says Charlie Brown, a wine writer who previously worked as a sommelier and owned an award-winning wine store in Essex
‘Big websites with thousands of wines might look appealing with their quick delivery and plenty of options. But it can be overwhelming and difficult to pick out the good from the bad. My advice is to find small-medium sized online retailers that have already done some serious bottle curation.’
Review the delivery fees, speeds and returns policies
Transporting wine can be expensive, as it is heavy and it requires special packaging to prevent breakage. Some retailers will absorb those costs if you spend a certain amount, so it can be advantageous to buy in bulk when shopping online.
Check delivery times too, as it can be frustrating to wait for days on end to receive the wine, especially if it is needed for a specific occasion. Ensure the retailer covers your location, and that the bottles will arrive at your door in a timely and reliable fashion. Some sites even provide same-day or next-day delivery, which is helpful.
The best online retailers also have hassle-free return policies, allowing you to return products you are not satisfied with. One disadvantage of shopping online is that you cannot inspect the bottles you are considering, so you cannot scrutinise the packaging for damage or check for issues with the liquid. The leading online retailers make it easy for you to get a refund, which gives you confidence when making online purchases.
Set your parameters
It is useful to figure out in advance how much wine you would like, the style you are interested in and when it will be consumed.
‘Know your parameters,’ says Brown. ‘How many bottles do you want to buy? What’s the ratio of white to red? What’s the wine for? If you go in blind, you could easily overbuy wines you don’t really want or need.’
‘Many people want to impress at a dinner party or purchase wine as a gift,’ adds Ruth Yates, founder of award-winning wine merchant Corks Out. ‘Therefore, knowing what your dinner guests enjoy or finding out what the person enjoys drinking if buying for a gift can make the buying experience a lot easier.’
Take advantage of filters and search tools
‘Buying online might not have the same charm as browsing in a dusty old merchant, or the convenience of supermarkets, but it has technical advantages instead,’ says Hemming.
‘Almost all ecommerce sites allow you to sort products by price, special offer, popularity or rating, which is a great way to discover something unexpected. Of course, if you already know what you want, search functions will return results according to grape variety, origin, vintage – even oak usage and food match. The Wine Society is particularly good at this.’
Brown adds: ‘When you filter, filter heavily. Reduce your options for each bottle as much as possible to make it easier for you to execute my next piece of advice: do some extra research.’
Conduct independent research
The product descriptions and customer reviews displayed on the site can help you gauge feedback from fellow shoppers.
However, it is also helpful to conduct independent research, rather than simply relying on the reviews displayed by the retailer.
‘Most online wine shops will include information about each wine, although the quality of this is variable – and is often ripped from other online sources,’ says Hemming. ‘Another risk, especially when buying older vintages or expensive bottles, is that you don’t know whether you can trust the bottle shot.’
Brown adds: ‘Many online retailers won’t tell you much about the wine, so give it a quick Google. The best winemakers like to shout about their wines so someone somewhere will have written about it, be it a blogger or the winemaker themselves.’
If you would like to conduct your own research, you will find a wealth of useful resources at Decanter. We have reviewed more than 70,000 wines over the years, and you can find scores and detailed tasting notes from our experts within our wine reviews section.
You might also like to consult the Decanter World Wine Awards results. In 2023, more than 200 wine experts – including 53 Masters of Wine and 16 Master Sommeliers – blind tasted more than 18,000 wines from across the world.
The best wines are assigned medals – bronze, silver, gold, platinum or Best in Show. These medals help you ascertain which wines have gained the seal of approval from the most demanding judges on the planet.
It is quick and easy to compare the prices on offer at rival retailers when shopping online – a luxury that is unavailable to anyone shopping in-person.
If one retailer is selling the same wine at a lower price, you can simply make your purchase at that site. Remember to factor in promotions, discounts and bundle deals when conducting any price comparison exercises.
However, make sure you are comparing the same wine and not a different vintage or producer, which can have a significant impact upon the price. Also factor in delivery costs and the general reputation of the retailer.
Go direct to the source
Online shopping offers a seamless and efficient way for you to browse a huge range of wines, compare prices and make informed purchases.
The best online retailers work hard to make the process as smooth and enjoyable as possible, which has helped them significantly increase their share of the market.
However, they naturally need to add a markup, which helps them pay their overheads and earn a profit. As such, in certain circumstances, you may find it more cost-effective to go straight to the source and buy directly from the producer’s website.
It can also give you access to exclusive wines, and you may receive discounts if you join a producer’s wine club. You can be fully confident in the wine’s authenticity and provenance too, so occasionally buying direct from a producer can neatly complement purchases made at reputable ecommerce sites.