Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Mystery Surrounding Lot18's UK Closure

The past week's change in strategy announced by Lot18 to close their UK efforts was curious, particularly when you consider they have been there only four months. Its a mystery worthy of Scotland Yard if you ask me. Repeated calls for an investigation have fallen of deaf ears. There are some clues however: The closure follows a couple small rounds of layoffs and the abandonment of some early initiatives directed at other luxury areas. In their press release, Lot18 suggested the reason for the closure:
‘Unfortunately, the supermarkets’ stranglehold on the UK market proved too powerful for us to compete with and we have not experienced the anticipated growth rate.’
A likely ruse it is. The supermarkets did it! They strangled Lot18 and I'm guessing the deed was done with a rope in the produce section by Colonel Mustard! Seems very suspicious to me. I called their CEO Philip James for comment on Friday but at press time there was no response so we are on our own to solve the mystery. What's the real reason behind Lot18's U.K. closure? Elementary my dear Watson.

In the SVB State Industry Report this past spring we said,
"Most of the Flash sites have a culture of discounting. Their businesses were built on the ability to source inexpensive product in an over-supplied market. The problem is, buying cheap wine is going to become increasing difficult in a market that is moving to shortage. If those companies have a culture of selling on price alone, they will be disadvantaged."
There hasn't been a major shift in our thinking about flash sites. We believe they are under pressure and the volume of wines available for discount are dropping, but there are some nuanced changes that might give us some more clues about our mystery:
  1. the US and world economy is softening a little more than we'd hoped which could increase wines available for discount
  2. sales rates of fine wines have been slowing mid-year. 
  3. near perfect growing conditions might lead to a little more wine at harvest reducing the predicted wine shortage this year, and expanding the supply of wines available to flash sites for discounting.

Courtesy Wines & Vines Industry Metrics
What do you conclude now Watson? Logic would say conditions might be improving for flash offers based on those clues. According to Wines & Vines, there were 36% more flash offers in June of 2012 versus 2011. That probably means the expansion in on-line sales continues to be the single biggest area of growth in US wine business. It's consistent with ShipCompliant's published statistics. But it doesn't give us any clue about Lot18's closure in the UK. In fact when you look at the selected chart above, the unweighted average discount being offered in April of this year is still 36%. Sounds like there are still wine discounts, no? It's a dead end, a wild goose-chase no doubt a clever ploy to take us off the scent. Prudence dictates we should quickly move on. Next theory Holmes?

I've got it. It was Mrs Peacock with a pipe wrench in the conservatory .... no.... let's not jump to premature conclusions Watson. I have it on good authority Mrs. Peacock was not in the UK when the closure took place. Stick with the clues. Maybe we can get some forensic ideas by looking at top line sales results of flash sites?


Compete.com is a pretty cool source of market intelligence. To the left are the charts for UV's (unique visitors) which aren't sales, but should be a proxy. The first chart is Invino which showed consistent growth, a big pop in March followed by a decline to about 50,000 unique visitors a month now. The next is Lot18 which shows a huge start followed by a pop in April (maybe the UK opening?) and then a decline to about 75,000 visitors a month. Now we're getting somewhere. It looks like Invino and Lot18 both have had visitor declines since February - AHhhh HA!! ..... So there were visitor declines after they opened their UK branch. That's too obvious a reason. That just supports Lot18's press release that business didn't work out in the UK. This is starting to have all the makings of a frame job on the UK supermarkets including a dastardly cover-up. Time to go deep into our sources for some more clues. To the blogoshpere Watson - the place where everything you read is true.


Robert Joseph aka Moriarty
The usual suspects in the US wont do. We need street level intel so we're going to a blogger in the UK; the Joseph Report. Robert Joseph is a fine blogger and it's worth reading his perspectives. He describes himself as a widely-travelled wino. Just the sort of snitch we need to shed some light on this mystery. In his blog last week, Joseph tossed out some of his own theories behind Lot18's UK shuttering. He theorizes the whole episode has to do with the differences between the US and UK retail markets. Lets analyze that: There is no doubt the US market is different from that of our Country's former owners when it comes to wine. They are kinda cheap  - perhaps frugal is a better word - thrifty perhaps? Our contact Joseph supports the cheap theory and opined the real reasons for the closure were the differences in the markets relating to purchases by Millennial's. What say you Watson? ......... Rubbish? Please expound.

Quite simply, the large numbers of Millennials don't necessarily mean opportunity with fine wine purchases today, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. The vast majority of wealth is still with the Boomers.Total wine sales in the US to Millennials are estimated between 10%-17% depending on the database you pick. The SVB Wine Conditions survey this year of a population of over 500 US wineries who use CRM suggest the market share is about 14%. But recently released information from ShipCompliant shows Millennials represent only 3% of on-line purchase activity. One would think Millennials; the most digitally literate generation ever should have a much larger market share than 3% of on-line sales? What are they doing with those i-Phone's if they aren't buying wine? Why do they show with such a low share of on-line purchases? My guess is price and speed. 

In order to make shipping wine cost effective, wine prices have to be something above $9 a bottle. Millennials buy the lowest average bottle price of all cohorts meaning they are less suited for the on-line channel versus the other cohorts when it comes to pricing. The second reason for the poor showing in on-line sales is the “now” factor. Being digitally literate has also made for one impatient group of consumers. They want it now. Most wine is consumed the night its purchased at the store. Millennials are less planned and more open-ended about their days, tweet when something is up and move on with a plan as it evolves. Getting a Millennial to go on-line, make a purchase of wine for a party they are having the next weekend is contrary to their behavior, and the wines sold on Lot18 averaged almost $35 a bottle; hardly in their price range. To conclude Holmes, this notion of Millennials being to blame is sleight of hand, simply a distraction probably by none other than Moriarty himself!

What we do know, is the Flash Site business model is one that evolved on two precepts: 1) people like a bargain, 2) there is extra wine in the market. While its true people still like a bargain or more accurately they prefer value, the second precept is vexing because it is a temporary and now evaporating condition. You can't build a long-term business model on a temporary condition. In checking around with people I know and trust, I am led to understand that the flash sites are under increasing stress today and smaller players are the first to feel the most pain. That makes sense in a new business model and it wouldn't surprise me to see some failures in the next year. But contrary to anything you read in here, I'd expect the larger and better capitalized businesses like Lot18 to be in the best position to adapt and survive. I'd also expect some more entrepreneurs to find their way in this direct to consumer retail and on-line business with new ideas and evolved sales techniques. That's not a declaration of the end of flash sites at all but does suggest the blurring of lines between e-tailers and flash sites. There is a business need and a consumer want and with time, the wants will be satisfied. One recent US entrant is Naked Wines who have a slightly different model but started in the UK and have crossed the pond this year. The model will not only survive, it with thrive but on learned and evolved sales techniques other than selling on price alone.

So Watson, why did Lot18 close their UK Offices? Lex parsimoniae. Occam's razor: sometime the easiest explanation is the best one. From their press release we read they "have not experienced the anticipated growth rate." The fact they had some recent departures, moved off some vertical luxury extensions, and closed a small under-performing office suggests they are adapting and evolving; focusing down on their core business. In any start-up, the early hires are seldom suitable for larger team environments and as new learning is found and expectations evolve, new talent is required to match new understanding. The fact Lot18 is actually evolving and willing to make these tough decisions means they are thinking about the markets and adapting. That's a good thing because in the end, we need good wine e-tailers in the 5th Column to help this emerging aspect of the wine business.

Case solved Watson. It wasn't Colonel Mustard or Mrs. Peacock and the weapon used was vaporous. Who done it? It was the Supermarket in the UK using a stranglehold on the marketplace.

21 comments:

  1. It appears that Lot 18 has bwlon though the $45+ million they received from VC. They sell wines at pretty much full retail and think that peopler will just flock to their site and purchase regardless. Most of the flash sites offer value some extreme value,, Lot 18 offfers pretty web site pages with high prices. My unofficial survey has not found a single bottle below $20 on Lot 18 in the past couple of months. $20+ is not value level and in addition they charge high shipping while many competitiors offer free or $1 shipping. Seeme to me you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out!

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    1. Its easy to string together their trends and conclude they've blown through their cash, but its not a presumption I can conclude. Working with a lot of start ups over time, I can tell you its normal to see experimentation and change. The 4 month trial in the UK is no doubt an odd happening. One would think there would have been a little longer attempt, or perhaps a little better market intel before opening. But startups do blow through their venture capital. The hope from the VC is they will turn profitable before they burn through cash.

      Flash sites in wine aren't going to have a long shelf life unless they expand their tricks in selling beyond just discounting. They can find off-shore wines perhaps, but even then it depends on the strength of the dollar.

      What we need are e-tailers who evolve away from offering wines at discounts and focus instead on their clients and their own clients experience. It can't be about price alone when the sourcing has been based on a temporary oversupply. Discounts won't go away, but I hope all the flash sites including Lot18 show that they understand their most important asset is their consumer.

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  2. Thanks for including me in your piece - and for crediting me as Moriarty. I wish I were that much of a mastermind! There is no question that the supermarkets do have an unusually strong position in the UK, and an unusual propensity to discounting (in order to attract "footfall" into their stores). What I find more interesting is the failure of the wine industry to create an aspirational market for wine in the UK, of the kind that is found in many other countries. The UK has no equivalent of Costco's fine wine sections - or indeed the super-premium listings to be found in supermarkets in countries like Switzerland and Austria. "Fine" wine in the UK is either sold online or - to a relatively limited extent - on the shelves of independent retailers.

    It is far too easy to blame the UK supermarkets for all of this country's woes - and to overlook the fact that these same chains offer fine wine online. Tesco's Pichon Baron 2005 or Waitrose's 2009 Domaine de la Vougeraie, Pommard Les Petits Noizons both illustrate the readiness of retailers like this to supply wine enthusiasts with their favourite potions. Unfortunately those enthusiasts are too scarce and far too few non-enthusiasts feel the need to show off by spending a little extra on wine. far too many Brits are far too happy to serve basic Pinot Grigio...

    I am fascinated to hear your views on the ephemeral Millennials - especially given the mileage they have received both within and outside the wine industry.

    I am also fascinated to hear about the suggestion that Lot18 has blown though its $45m. If that were the true, Sherlock would have more work to do!

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    1. Thanks for your good-natured participation Robert. *Nice name BTW.

      Thanks too for the commentary on Brits palates. There is a notable difference between consumer needs and wants. Wine here continues to grow as part of a normal lifestyle. Hard to say precisely why its taken off as a mainstay but I would guess its the impact of waves of Italian immigrants who brought their culture, coupled with mass marketing in the 60's, and more recently by the Boomers who since the middle 90's have come into their own and spend a pence or two on luxury goods.

      Which segues to the Millennials. They are no doubt a large group and more digital. But like prior generations in the US, they start with beer and plonk because that's what they can afford and move up from there as their palates and pocketbooks allow.

      I look forward to hearing more of your views in the Joseph Report.

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  3. Rob, I am really beginning to look forward to Monday due to your commentary that shows up then. As for flash sites, I also am looking forward to a more stable route for wines making it to the market place. Currently a 90+ score and deep discounting is more important than where, by whom, from what and how a wine is made. I realize that everyone of those points is too much for most consumers, but a bit here and there helps move the industry in a more stable direction. The problem with that is it takes some of the marketing power away from big commercial brands. Too bad.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. I'm enjoying the creative effort in writing the blog.

      Flash sites and e-tailing are going to run together. There is room for well-run flash sites, but developing out CRM is critical for all e-tailers success. Further, the shipping price on wine makes it important to sell wines that are slightly higher priced so as to get a proper return. That's threading the needle for a company. You are going to make more money sticking with something that scales and scale is in the lower price ranges. Selling wines above $25 US is a smaller market and probably in the end best served by curated sites like K&L, etc as part of their retail outreach. What we know is the markets will continue to evolve and we will end up with a strong 5th Column because the consumer demand is there.

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  4. I quit getting Lot 18 emails cuz, no big deal, as prev. noted. And not very useful prose, no abv%, etc.

    Does this also explain why, a flash that I do sometimes buy from, WTSO, runs so many re-runs re-runs re-runs? They can't acquire fresher names & wines?

    I do note a paradox: flash sites asset is the buyer, not the winery, but, the site depends on good relations with the producer side of the wine biz in order to have any marketable product. As Tevye the Fiddler would say, finding the balance is as hard as being a Fiddler, on the Roof.

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    1. Well said. It is a paradox and a mistake that flash sites started with winery relations alone and took the coutomer relationship as a given based on a discount. Thats not a relationship.

      There is room and demand for e-tailers. They can buy for wholesale price even in undersupplied markets with proper marketing techniques. But selling wine by the bottle is a costly endevour. Getting that business model directed to consumers who can then pull wine through a site, thus allowing the e-tailer to fulfill those needs is the end-game for DtC. There is a wide gulf between now and then in absorbing those changes and we in the trade should all be cheering loudly for their success.

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  5. At the risk of being dubbed Mrs Hudson, I'm sending you a link here
    http://www.scalawine.com/wpblog/?Itemid=12 on a piece which went up on our site earlier today.

    It was only later I discovered your very interesting piece. As Robert Joseph says, if they are running out of cash with only themselves to blame, I would not be so blasé about startups in general being profligate.

    Any comments on what we say at www.scalawine.com would be most welcome.

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  6. Tim - I'm happy to not be passed off for Langdale Pike at this at this point in the play.

    Your piece is well positioned and thought. Worth a read for certain.

    There are clear questions when a company has that quick a reversal in strategy. Profligate? Maybe. I'd suggest trial and error and a decision to cut losses as better versus continuing the bleeding and burning through more cash. I'm equally certain it was a difficult discussion and ego's weren't soothed by executing on the close.

    Keeping my fingers crossed they find their stride.

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  7. Rob, I'd like to probe your assumption that the current oversupply of wine is temporary. Liberal economic theory posits that imbalances between supply and demand will be corrected automatically via the price mechanism, given a few key conditions - properly functioning markets, perfect information, and the like.

    If this imbalance cannot be corrected via typical market mechanisms, then we would not expect to see flash sites die away. What if the arrogance and ignorance of a significant number of producers violates the perfect information condition? How many times has a winery owner assumed that their wine will sell for $100, only to find that he/she overestimated either the demand for their product or the quality of their product? Is it possible that there will always be wine for flash sites to sell at a discount?

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  8. Cody -
    I can see you’re a true theorist. You like to know how things work and in that you and I are wired alike.

    The supply situation in wine is impacted by inefficient markets, taxation, and subsidies. The other thing that creates imbalance in wine is the planting cycle which extends out about 5 years before getting a full yield. That means an investor today would have needed to invest in expensive planting right at the peak of the recession. That was a hard thing to do for anyone back then and with growth in consumption and no planting, we do have shortages at a point. We can't call up Singapore when we run out of Oregon Pinot Noir, like we can for computer chips when those run short.

    Also consider I didn't say discounting would die away. In fact discounting is sustainable when e-tailers replace wholesalers as the middle-man, but that requires a focus on the consumer versus the product.

    Then consider the size of markets. There will always be a winery that makes a gaffe on a SKU. But that market is so small, it’s not really relevant in the space. Its not like the clothing business that will constantly overproduce for a season or come up with a line that doesn't sell. Flash sites for those goods are sustainable.

    Scalable wine flash sites will need a whole lot of expensive wine to sell on price alone, and that supply is very thin to start.
    The worldwide market for wine supply is nearing a balance and in many cases running to a shortage (subject to a second recession.) Getting a producer to sell a product at a discount just to move it gets increasingly difficult and if the markets are efficient, will lead to flash sites competing with each other for available product and drive up their own costs.


    What we need to do is draw a distinction between a marketer/sales agent who uses all the P's in marketing to sell a product, versus a company that buys low and sells high. The former are needed and can sustaing themselves in the US Market. The latter won't not only because of dwindling supply, but because its not in a producers interest to sell them supply when they can get a better return in other channels and protect their market price.

    Thanks for pushing back on the premise. I like the engagement and bringing in the other side of a debate.

    Regards

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  9. Hi Rob,

    Your assessment of the Millennial generation's wine consumption behavior is spot on. They are not planning their tastings, or coordinating long term cellars...they are just drinking. As for Lot18, it is a beautiful site and does a great job of Curating. However, their blunder is that they are still selling wine the same way wine has been sold for centuries. They talk/write about it. Unfortunately, only a small subset of the wine drinking population as whole actually understands enough about their own palates and the language of wine to incorporate the information into a purchase decision for future consuption. Only Self proclaimed experts like ourselves actually enjoy the reading...(sometimes).

    For me, the most important sentence in your post is: "I'd also expect some more entrepreneurs to find their way in this direct to consumer retail and on-line business with new ideas and evolved sales techniques." This statement is completely true when considering the convergence of online and offline technologies. We have been building this evolved Sales strategy for the last year.

    I am the one of the Founders of BottleJoy.com, a wine genome project. We have developed a technology that models the preferences of the consumer's for them. We give online personalized algorithmic preference matching to the traditional Brick and Mortar business. We have built a confidence engine that makes everyone an expert in what they like.

    We do not ask the wine drinker to rate the wine, review the wine, or even write about the wine. We only ask: Do you like this wine enough to use its profile for your personal palate? This is question is important as it eliminates opinion. With a growing data set of users, We are able to map the preferences of entire cities and provide this valuable Intelligence to the BottleJoy enabled BnMs.

    Not only are we able to provide intelligence to the wineries and Distributors, but BottleJoy also connects wine drinkers to the wines they love when they are tasting the wines. We have built a payment portal into BottleJoy that allows the consumer to purchase the wines they are currently enjoying. We turn every taste of wine into an opportunity. (Look for us at the Democratic National Convention with Fighter.com, or at a fundraiser near you soon).

    Confidence is the key to growing the market. I am a firm believer that you do not have to speak the language of wine to enjoy wine. We built this for the next 90% of the population that does not want to be a wine expert, but still wants to drink a great Bottle of Wine. We give them the ability to Explore and Discover regardless of where they are shopping while maximizing the potential revenue for the retailer.

    The Value Proposition for wineries to offer deep discounts via Flash Offer sites to potential consumers is gone with the increased demand for wine globally. BottleJoy finds the person who is most likely to enjoy that wine each day and who is willing to pay the premium for the impulse purchase in order to be able to drink it immediately. We are rolling this out in San Diego this summer.

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Cheers,

    Scott@BottleJoy.com

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  10. Rob...I do believe that Robert (J) is correct about the supermarket strangehold in the UK...spent 8 days with the managing director of Wine Educators International this spring as we toured Croatian wineries. Many Croatian wineries were obviously looking for entry to the UK and the bleak picture that Martin Ward painted for them (time and time again) made me very glad that I headed back to the good ole' 3-tier system (compared to the UK system our wineries have a cakewalk).

    Some other tidbits is the fact that 3 of the 4 top Lot 18 people left (about 2 months ago)...probably in response to the many points you made. Pretty hard to stay the course of a business plan without the people do devised it.

    Another point that I would think can't be verified is that between Lot 18, WTSO (et al) the wine lovers who savoured those deals burned out and bought themselves into an oversupply of good wine at crazy low prices...I hate to admit it but I am a closet WTSO buyer...my wife and I became overstocked with good wine ourselves and have slowed considerably on our buying there (that being said we got a shipment today and their Cheapstake Wednesday starts in less than 20 hours). However I do watch what they sell and at what discounts. I will freely admit that the following statement is not scientifically based....but...for about 2 to 3 months in the April to May time frame I did notice that many of their deals had discounts that were not so great...then starting about 6 weeks ago the discounts started to expand back to the 50% to 60% range.

    I think that those wineries who made use of flash sites (especially during the recession) to improve their cash flow probably have come to rely on it...I agree with all that you have stated and speculate that if not for that reliance on the cash flow issue we may have seen a few more flash sites bit the dust.

    I've always wondered why these wineries (the American ones) who use these flash sites to dispose of excess inventory didn't first offer it to their loyal wine club members? You spend hundred of dollars as a club member only to see much of the same wine at half that price (or less) available at the flash sites with no shipping charge for a hand full of bottles???

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    1. Thanks for the post Mark. I agree with your perception of the Supermarket and UK consumer. Interesting thought about wine lovers filling up their cellar too. I've heard others offer that. I don't think the discounts you are seeing are sustainable unless we are talking about EU wines and the exchange rates stay down.

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  11. Rob it would take far too much analysis & computing power to determine even short term sustainability than I currently have. Without looking at which vintage and at what percentage the discounts are being offered on it would be tough "to see" what is happening at any individual winery and collectively I don't think it makes a difference.

    Unless a winery has a"significant" name does it really make any sense to keep a library? Do many people walk in off the street and say "this 09 is good but do you have any 07's?" Again...I think there are better ways for wineries to utilize non-current releases than the flash sites...if they are already shipping out the back door is it that much of an issue to add to that to move older wines?

    The current crisis in the EU may stretch the life of the flash sites out longer than otherwise might be expected and model's like WTSO are built on a better foundation than the Lot 18's but I doubt that we will see any new ones until the next glut hits us...and that is too far off for my crystal ball to be accurate!

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  12. Rob,

    As an investor in a Lot18 competitor and a venture fund with our headquarters in the UK, we watched very closely Lot18's entry into that market. Here is an ACTUAL INTERNAL EMAIL at DN from the time of the April launch, perhaps this gives some insights as to why Lot18 failed [I have deleted the original Lot18 email below, but it was for El Descanso Central Valley Merlot 2009 Duo):


    From: Tom Bradley
    Sent: Monday, April 30, 2012 5:34 AM
    To: Steve Schlenker; Nenad Marovac
    Cc: Christina Chen; Tom Bradley
    Subject: Fw: New World ease meets Old World refinement

    Guys - this is Lot18's UK product offering. I think this is really poor. I don't know if they do it better in the US but these offers have several things wrong with them:

    1) Wines are suggested by Lot18 people - there is no independent validation that this is a good wine. Without independent scores or reviews I am just buying what Lot18 wants me to buy, not a great situation.
    2) This to me is not an interesting wine - there is no story here except Chilean vs French Merlot. They do not communicate any character that makes you want to buy.
    3) Photography is very uninspiring.
    4) I can only buy weird quantities - they are offering me a pair of these.
    4) The links in the second offer are dead. You can't click through it.
    4) It appears to be inaccurate both with regard to price and availability of the wines. They claim to have UK exclusives but a little bit of googling tells me that I can buy the El Descanso for £8.50 in UK retail for a single bottle http://www.winecircle.co.uk/wines-and-spirits/new-world/chile or I can get it here http://www.finewineservices.co.uk/search.cfm paying £7.30 / bottle if I buy 6.

    So all in all it looks like a very beatable competitor. The addition of independent data to more skilful curation and flexibility in terms of product (i.e buy the number of bottles i want) would be a much stronger proposition and for all their money, Lot 18 UK seems to be miles away from that.

    I would guess with Majestic, Wine Society, Slurp, BBR.com and the online supermarkets all doing a better job they will struggle in the UK.

    Tom Bradley

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    1. Thanks for the reply Tom. Personally I'd be cautious about posting internal emails but I appreciate the post nonetheless.

      I'm sure since their closure Lot18 has been busy doing forensics on the situation. It goes without saying their investors couldn't be happy about the speed of the opening and closing. Its a waste of cash and something has to be reviewed in their plans and process. Perhaps this email gives them some more forensic assistance.

      Rob

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  13. http://bit.ly/P2i58O

    For those still following this thread ... recent announcement from Colonel Mustard on the Company.

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  14. http://allthingsd.com/20130107/lot18-sours-on-flash-sales-lays-off-25-as-it-shifts-to-wine-subscriptions/
    Thought I'd update the latest on this most high profile e-tailer. Citing the comments from above:
    "Most of the Flash sites have a culture of discounting. Their businesses were built on the ability to source inexpensive product in an over-supplied market. The problem is, buying cheap wine is going to become increasing difficult in a market that is moving to shortage. If those companies have a culture of selling on price alone, they will be disadvantaged."

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  15. http://www.businessinsider.com/exclusive-lot18-lays-off-11-employees-2013-5

    Another chapter in the evolution of Lot18. Predictions we made in the State of the Industry report in the above comment that are italicized, ended up proving out in this case. They ended up starting this business with a focus on finding "excess wine" which is now gone. Now they have to flip that on its head and focus on the customer, and the other P's of marketing besides price. The prior acquisition of TastingRoom.com is a chance for them to find a unique path and develop a relationship with their customers and that could be successful. Will they succeed? Stay tuned for continuing adventures.

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