New York Times jumps on the wine in a box bandwagon

This morning at 9:30 am, Tuesday August 19th, the single most emailed story on the New York Times website was not that Obama has decided a running mate, it was not the war in Iraq, it was not the Olympics.  Here’s the true measure of the popularity of wine in today’s culture: it was about boxed wines.

A full third of all wine sold in Italy today is packed in Tetra-Pak.  The boxed wine selection in most stores is about five times the size it was three years ago (with several prominent large brands taking up less and less space, I might add).  It’s all about finding better, but not best, juice in boxes for the sake of convenience and environmental karma (plus value, of course).

(Sidenote: I still think that if a prominent Napa Valley Cabernet producer, somebody with a stellar reputation, released a TINY amount of their wine in box format — imagine paying $300 for a 3L box! — it would generate enough buzz to be the story of the year.  Talk about free advertising!)

However, the really interesting part is to be found here, in the New York Times comments section.  If you want to keep on the pulse of current public opinions, the newspaper comments section is a good place to find the more aggressive, passionate, and loud voices (that inevitably influence the more passive and quiet ones).

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“14 is the new 10”

Gig Tickets, by Flickr user Limowreck666

Gig Tickets, by Flickr user Limowreck666

Do you ever catch yourself listening to a conversation (or, in this example, the radio) and something is said that grabs you and sticks in your brain and you can’t shake it out?

On Sunday August 3rd, on Sound Opinions (Sunday nights on The Current … quite possibly the best music show on the radio today), the hosts had special guests Sean Agnew, Mitchell Franks, and Jake Szufnarowski.  These three guys are smaller venue rock show promoters from around the country and have seen the ups and downs of decades of promotions and shows.

(Sidenote: As they talked, it became clear that in the music promotion business, not unlike the wine business, the bigger guys are getting bigger — and as we know bigger isn’t always better — and the smaller guys that keep their heads about them are getting creative, working with modern business models, and starting to have the time of their lives.  A classic David and Goliath story.  Quite interesting. Click here for footnotes on the entire show.)

Anyway, I regret that I don’t know which person said it, but when he did it stuck to me:

“14 is the new 10.”

And what he was referring to is the shift in small show ticket prices that has happened just in the last few months.  Last year, charging $6 to see a show was a bad idea … people wondered if it’s going to be worth it, wondered if there is a good band on the roster, and wondered if they should go somewhere else.  But if you charged $10 you got a significantly higher rate of attendance and return, in addition to a higher class of attendees.  It became a win win for the band, the promoter, and the venue.  (The last time this price shift happened, according to this experienced promoter, was circa 1988).

All of the sudden, because of the shift in the cost of goods and transportation, $14 is the new $10.

So when figuring out the retail line up in your store, keep this story in mind.   Your customers may grumble, and of course there are still great bargains out there, but the baseline for quality has changed in value. And on wine lists, more so than anywhere else, don’t hesitate to put a $14 glass of wine out there.  It’s the new 10!

How to sell Tawny Port when it’s 90 degrees outside

(photo: City of Oporto by Flickr member Francisco-PortoNorte)

It’s late June and here in Minnesota the bugs are starting to come out and pretty soon by 3:00 in the afternoon that heat will start to be a bit too much for most people. Or maybe it’s the humidity … that magical invisible meteorological condition that separates us from Colorado (that and mountains, scenery, and outdoor baseball). Anyway, back to point.

When you’re in Minnesota and sell some of the best Ports made, June through mid September tends to be a pretty slow time. I hear it from every restaurant and retailer buyer I present them to: “Are you kidding? It’s way too hot outside for Port!”

So what do they do in Portugal? Think about it. Nobody consumes more Port than Portugal, yet they have heat waves the likes of which put us to shame. Heat and humidity are a way of life there. So what do they do? They chill it!

Try it yourself. Get some Graham’s 20 year tawny, or Smith Woodhouse 10 year tawny and put it in the fridge overnight. Then pour two glasses and microwave one of them until it’s just above room temperature. This is a great, quick education in taste sensations. The cooler temp brings out the acidity and liveliness in the port. It enhances the bright brown sugar aromas, the orange rind tang, the brighter dry fruit aromas. It’s downright REFRESHING. The one that is too warm is downright FLABBY, with the heat of the alcohol overwhelming the wine.

Last year, in Chicago, there were fourteen restaurants that were doing chilled Tawny Port offerings. The results were clear: it was a hit. Not gangbusters, of course, but enough to justify the ‘effort’ to do it (‘effort’ here being to put the bottle in the cooler and re-print the menu).

And retailers? Don’t forget that in many other states you would be banned from in-store tastings! Make use of our situation and chill down a bottle of Tawny Port to introduce you customers to a new favorite summertime sipper! Offer 20% off all Port between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Do anything to bring attention to that part of your shop!

That is simply money in the bank.

The inflatable gorilla

We’ve all seen them, and it’s amazing how easy it is to rent one, but I don’t think wine retailers need inflatable gorillas. Maybe an inflatable Pinot Noir stem, or an oversized 1970 Ridge Montebello, but not a gorilla.

However, the idea of drawing in customers sure has appeal. Retailers in Minnesota lament the summer as ‘beer season’ or ‘everybody’s at the cabin’ … but you may be able to do your own version of a gorilla:

  • 20% off all summertime whites. Have a dot or a marker of some sort on all the light bodied, higher acid selections. This works wonders … I met a retailer from Florida who mops up the competition by doing this every year.
  • “Baker’s dozen” sale … mix and match twelve and get one free (lowest price, of course). Do the math … this is, at most, just 8% off but you’d be surprised how well it works.
  • Even better — buy six, get one free. This is, at most, 16% off — a fair discount for you to take for seven bottles going out.
  • Sale on all screwtop wines, which skew toward the crisp, summertime selections anyhow. Call it a ‘screwed up economy’ sale if you want to be sassy about it.
  • 20% any pre-chilled wine all summer long! Watch you become THE STORE for the last minute shoppers on their way to a party. I think this could be HUGE for you, and it’s a good way to leverage cold box placements with your wholesalers.
  • 15% off all wine when the temperature is over 90 degrees. Make a show of it. Buy one of those remote thermometers and build a display around it with signs and arrows and balloons. Then go 25% off if it’s over 95 degrees. Wouldn’t it be nice to have masses of wine shoppers on the hottest days of the year?

A small green dot can convey a lot

Before diving into this post, take at look at the wine list from The Slanted Door in San Francisco (arguably one of the better restaurants in that great city). They identify their organic and biodynamic selections with nice subtle icons. A moon, a star, etc.

The organic/sustainable/biodynamic issue is hot at the moment, and shows no sign of slowing down. I can’t reasonably see a day when people fade from the issue and say ‘Do you have any wines with chemical influence? I like those!’ This is not a pendulum swinging … this is a cultural shift in how we eat and drink.

If your restaurant takes the sustainable/organic/biodynamic positions seriously, consider adding icons like The Slanted Door has. Just be sure to train your staff on how to talk about these topics! (We can help with that, hint hint.)

For retailers, what if you had a subtle but consistent indicator of organic/biodynamic/sustainable wines? An inexpensive rubber stamp set of leaves and trees is all you need. Or even just a small green dot … as soon as a customer asks ‘what does the dot mean?’ you have the door open to a conversation.

The end of the Yellow Pages, or why you need a website.

“As a wine retailer/winebar/restaurant, do I need a website and how do I make good use of it?”

Before answering the questions, keep in mind I just read a local newspaper article saying that 85% of people who receive the yellow pages never open it and proceed to (illegally) throw it in the garbage. (Recycling companies are required by law to take them). Think about that — the big yellow book, which from 1915 to 1997 was pretty much the only way to find a business of any sort, is now just landfill fodder. And the phone companies still try to charge for ad space in that dinosaur! Okay, back to the questions…

To answer the first question (Do I need a website) the answer is a screaming, jumping, fist pounding YES! You need a website like you need a phone and a sign in front of your establishment. It’s that simple. It’s how people will find you and decide to spend money with you. More on what constitutes a good website in another post. Onto the next question:

I’ve casually asked four customers this week what their website address is.

  • One scrawled down an old-school address like http://www.freewebsite4u/mywineshopname or something like that. Obviously a late 1990’s attempt at a website and unfortunately I’m sure he paid the ‘bargain sum’ of $299 or more for it. Sad part is he’s still using it.
  • One handed me his business card and said “Oh, it’s right there. Or just Google our name and we pop right up.” (or just Google “wine retail saint paul mn” and their name is right there).
  • One said “I don’t need a website. Haven’t needed it before, so why do I need it now?”
  • One said “We’ve been thinking about a website” (what? since 1999?)

Guess which of the four has seen in-store sales rise over 17% every year for the last four years?

A website is today’s equivalent of your grandfather’s yellow pages listing – it’s how your new customers will find you. Simple as that. Anybody reading this blog is obviously web-savvy enough to understand this. But it’s taking it to the next level that is so important: You have to make sure people find you before they find the competition. Lucky for all of us, Google is the clear choice for search engines and their interfaces are so powerful that entering the information once will immediately point people your way when they type in your store or restaurant name.

Go here (the ‘Adding a business to Google’ page) and relish in the fact that NOBODY of any sense pays a monthly fee for a yellow pages display ad (or radio ad, or television ad).

Read Seth Godin’s books for more info on 21st century marketing … it’s a great starting point for understanding ‘Web 2.0’.

Retail idea: The ‘Recession Buster’

When the economy takes a downturn (or there’s some economic concern in general) we see a few key patterns emerge in the retail wine sector:

  • Sales of high end wines tend to go toward the more historical and established names with a reputation for consistent high quality (Montelena, Jordan, Shafer, etc.). Unproven, higher priced new brands tend to have a difficult time in a market like this.
  • Jane Q. Public is far less likely to buy on a whim, and she wants to know key information about what she’s buying beyond somebody saying ‘It’s good’.
  • People want a bargain, or a least a deal, or at a bare minimum a sale.

So what can you do? It’s amazing how a few simple adjustments can dramatically improve sales.

  • Group the ‘tried and true‘ higher end wines together. Put one sign under all of them.  (Even something as simple as “The Tried and True” can make all the difference in the world.)
  • Be sure key information is available through detailed shelftalkers, rather than just a rating or review snippit. Food pairings like “Pizza and burgers” helps the average joe feel that wine is a beverage and not just for special occasions.
  • Make a deal for the customer: buy two bottles and save some money. Regularly $14.99, buy two for $28.00. In the end, the customer is saving less than 10%; but the sense of getting a better price than normal dominates. Or buy six bottles of Italian wine and save 20%. Or any wine with a screwcap is 15% off this month only (call it the “Screwed Economy” sale!?!?). Even the smallest of deals/offers/sales can keep them coming to you instead of the competition.