Adaptability to changing times ensured longevity for family business trading since 1901

Tucked away off the Market Place, Amps Wine Merchants maintains a prominent position in Oundle as the oldest family-run business in town. Originally trading from its Market Place shop as a family grocer, provision merchant, wines and spirits trader and tallow chandler, Amps has been in business since 1901.

Philip Amps is the fourth generation to manage the family business. While most children make pretend shops out of cardboard boxes, Mr Amps had the enviable luck of a proper shop to play in.

“From a very early age we used to play with the tills and operate them on a Sunday. And the poor lady, a lady called Gladys Bosworth who used to do the cashing up, would come in on a Monday and at the end of the day when she did a till, there would be many thousands of pounds missing because we’d been playing on the tills.”

As they got older, the shop provided opportunities to learn about running a shop. On school holidays or whenever they were at home, if they wanted some pocket money there were always essential tasks, such as a shelf that needed to be stocked.

After finishing school at Uppingham, Mr Amps had been intending to go to Loughborough to study sport. However, the pull of family business brought him back to Oundle.

“My father suggested I come back into the family business which was probably a bit more of an order than a request,” he said.

He honed his skills at a management training scheme with Sainsburys and returned to join his father in business.

In the early 1980s, wine was a luxury that few people drank. “It wasn’t nearly as vast of an industry as it is today,” Mr Amps recalled. His father saw an opportunity and suggested that he develop a specialism in the field. While studying and taking his wine exams he developed a strong interest in wine and that became his focus. Although they stocked wine in the grocery store, they could see a growing interest in specialty shops. They purchased their current site behind the Market Place in 1988 and converted it into a wine shop.

In 1993, following the arrival of purpose-built supermarkets in town, the Amps family closed their grocery store and moved into wine.

“I am very lucky that what is actually my passion and interest outside of business is actually also now my job,” said Mr Amps.

The Market Place has evolved a lot during Amp’s time. The construction of the bypass altered the type of business that was coming through town, and the introduction of supermarkets presented the Market Place with a dilemma: either evolve, as the Amps did, or close.

The first lockdown earlier this year forced Amps to make new decisions about adapting to change. It was fortunate for the wine industry that the supply chain was not disrupted. Although his wine orders were impounded in South Africa during their strict lockdown, other supply chains carried on as normal, although with slower delivery times.

The biggest change was the vineyards having to use machines to pick grapes because they couldn’t find enough workers, which is not ideal for the quality of the harvest.

The wholesale side of business, which comprised seventy percent of sales supplying pubs and restaurants, collapsed in the lockdown. But while supermarkets were restricted to selling two bottles of wine at a time, Amps was able to provide whatever individual customers wanted via online orders, which helped make up their sales.

“Many businesses have had to adapt and change. I mean we changed from a predominantly wholesale to a retail. Thankfully we had a website, that we didn’t think was very good, but it certainly worked. We were taking 150 to 200 orders a day, which was a big change from when we used to get that number of orders in a month.

“We were lucky enough to be featured in some of the national newspapers as businesses that were alive and popular with wine merchants, and so that did help us as well; we had a lot of parcels going out via couriers to basically all over the country.”

Mr Amps also kept his focus local, and asked, “how is this going to work?” for the Market Place. He talked with other businesses in town and coordinated a collective delivery service including Hambleton Bakery, Cookies, Oundle News, Seven Wells and Trendalls. “We even delivered some shoes from Norths alongside our wine orders.”

Having helped to keep his family’s business thriving through 120 years of change in Oundle, Mr Amps still sees a lot of potential. Oundle is known as a beautiful town, with all visitors remarking on its charm, and interesting heritage. Mr Amps thinks that there is much to promote.

“I think tourism is something that Oundle should do a little bit more of. We’ve got a fantastic river facility, with boats going up and down the river and the people who come into town to visit and I think that’s something that we should promote.”

Mr Amps is confident that due to the strength of the community, Oundle will remain a prosperous market town.

“The Oundle Business Association is very strong, and it’s very active. There are lot of diverse businesses, including those running from home,” he said.

“Oundle is a popular place to live, especially with people reconsidering where they want to live and work after the pandemic. There’s a lot of positivity about localism and people are genuinely looking to support the town and each other.”

Johannes Mynhardt
1 December 2020