HOLIDAY BEER MERCHANDISING

It’s that time of year again — the fall/winter holidays — when retailers work long hours to help make it a profitable year.

Traditionally, retailers see a fairly substantial bump in sales of spirits and wine during the holidays. And summer’s over, so beer sales are down anyway, right? Not necessarily. With a little creative merchandising, beer can still be a big seller during the dark days of winter. The key is to remind customers of all the beers you carry and give them reasons to buy.

Research has shown that as much as 70% of a consumer’s beer purchases are impulse-driven. Good merchandising — through displays, signage, promotions, events, even web pages — can drive impulse sales. Studies also have shown that as many as two out of five consumers won’t buy beer or will go to another store to buy it if they can’t find their brand in your store. Good shelf sets and category management, obviously, are essential to any merchandising program.

In honor of the season, here are a dozen merchandising techniques to make even Frosty the Snowman thirst for a cold, frosty beer. Not all ideas are legal in all states, of course, but if you pick and choose, no doubt you’ll find some effective ways to move more beer.

A Holiday Gift Basket Or Two

Many customers come in during the holidays looking for a nice bottle of spirits or liqueur as a gift for friends or relatives, which is why so many distillers put out special gift packs. But beer has come into its own as a unique and perfectly acceptable gift, too, as more craft and imported beers have come onto the market.

A number of wholesalers now pre-pack eight- and 12-bottle boxes of “Beers From Around The World.” Often, the variety packs can be tailor-made to the tastes of a specific market. Otto’s stores in Milwaukee, for example, carry a Wisconsin variety pack in addition to microbrew and imported packs. The six-store Party Source chain based in Bellevue, KY, also sells variety packs.

“We blow those out because they’re at a great price point, and there are 12 or 15 different themes to them,” said owner Ken Lewis. The Party Source staff also packs its own selections — a box of Christmas ales or a box of different beer styles — with a flyer describing each of the beers. “It’s a very profitable use of time for the staff to start packing our own selections early in the season,” Lewis said. “We move thousands at holiday time.”

A number of retailers make up their own holiday beer baskets. About 20 years ago, Haskel’s in Minneapolis developed a cardboard suitcase for half bottles of wine. During the holidays, the suitcases are converted to gift boxes for beer, said vice president Dan Manning. Variety packs featuring beer from Minnesota, imports or other micros are priced from $5.99 to $10.99 and sell by the thousands.

Haskel’s also puts together a gift basket of 24 beers stacked into a pyramid, and sells it for about $50. Another assortment of 24 beers is packed in wooden wine crates.

“We wrap thousands of gift baskets of beer,” said Geoff Worden, wine and spirits consultant at Martin Wine Cellar in New Orleans. The baskets include 12 assorted beers and peanuts. “They go out of here like hot cakes. We mix it up each year because we want to make the gift as versatile as possible to appeal to a beer lover and to a guy who knows nothing about beer.”

Applejack, in Wheatridge, CO, sells a 24-bottle “mystery case” priced at $19.99 for domestics and $24.99 for craft beers in addition to the 8-pack beers of the world assortment. “The mystery case is intriguing to customers,” said Alan Freis, president. “It really works. We move a lot of them.”

Gift pack assortments also can be a good way to deplete inventory of an item that hasn’t sold well on its own.

Mix ‘N Match

Nothing drives impulse sales faster than making it easy for customers to buy beers they’ve never tried before. There are a number of ways to display and price beers that give customers both the opportunity and the option to mix and match different beers.

The Party Source prices all of its beers individually, and devotes whole sections of both cooler space (as many as 12 doors) and shelves to single beers. Customers simply fill empty six-pack carriers with the beers of their choice, and they’re scanned or rung up individually at the register. Single bottle prices are slightly higher than six-pack prices, but are still fair.

“The most expensive 12-ounce beer might be only a couple of bucks,” said Lewis. “That’s not a big investment. It’s an easier sell than wine. Beer doesn’t have as big a mystique as wine. Customers believe they really can learn about beer, and it appeals to a wider audience.”

Displaying beer close to the register also can spur more impulse sales. “As an afterthought or an add-on, customers will grab a six-pack or sort up a mix-and-match six-pack,” said Manning. Haskel’s puts both featured six-packs and racks of loose bottles as close to the checkout as possible. Loose bottles are in tiers that customers can match up in six-packs that sell for $5.99, $6.99 or $7.99.

Town Wine & Spirits, Rumsford, RI, has a basket of single beers in the front of the store that may sell for as little as 69 cents apiece or some other set price, according to beer manager Mike O’Neil.

“We always try to put a single beer on display for $1.29 or $1.59 so customers can try new things,” said Bruno Rosin, at one of the Harris Teeter stores in Charleston, SC.

Displays

Displays can draw attention to sale prices, special promotions, new products, or items you want to move out of inventory. To make their point, displays need to be eye-catching and deliver a succinct message. So it makes sense to develop a strategy for displays and use them judiciously. Size, position in the store, creativity, and signage will all play a part in how well a display moves product.

Ultimately, all beer should be on display in some way, if only on a warm shelf. “The saying around here goes, ‘You can’t sell it if it’s in the back room,'” said Mike Quinn, beer buyer for Curtis Liquor, headquartered in Weymouth, MA.

Curtis Liquor’s three stores have ample space in the front of the store for large displays. In the past, the store has created a replica of the Boston Garden and a football stadium and put racing cars in its beer displays. During the holidays, stores often feature spinning displays and displays with lots of holiday ornaments.

Some say simpler is better. “Mass stacks with signage and good pricing is what works,” said Applejack’s Freis. “We use very few banners, just price signs and cut cases. Prominent places and good prices are what make good displays. The key is to keep it full and keep it neat.”

In some cases, smaller may be better. “With people watching quality and a beer’s age so closely now, we’re building smaller displays with more varieties,” said Tim Berger, manager of one of the Otto’s stores. “Keeping beer fresh is a main concern.” During the holidays, every display has a holiday theme; some are decorated with tinsel or lights.

Newsletters

Before you can attract a customer’s eye with a creative display, you have to get them in the store. Newsletters can get the word out about new beers in stock, special promotions or events that might be of interest to your customers.

“We send out a newsletter every month with a list of events like tastings,” said Carlos Huiza, beer manager at Red Carpet Wine & Liquor, Glendale, CA. “Plus we send out a special postcard for specific beer events.”

Centennial Liquors, located in Dallas, sends the “Centennial Bulletin” to its customers quarterly, including one for the holidays, according to executive vice president Roger Voss. Most contain articles about beer, with tasting notes supplied by breweries.

Catalogs, too, give customers a good idea of what’s in stock and what’s new in the store. Martin Wine Cellar advertises its beer gift baskets in a catalog and receives plenty of long-distance orders.

A number of retailers also have discovered that the Internet is another way to spread the word about what their stores have to offer. Red Carpet has a home page on the worldwide web with articles about beer, and Huiza is trying to create hypertext links on the page that will connect customers to other beer sites on the web. Martin Wine Cellar also has a home page that includes articles about beer and the staff’s opinions about beers they’ve tasted.

Giveaways

Giveaways also can draw attention to a display or a particular beer. Whenever possible, Curtis Liquor works with local wholesalers to find creative ways to get customers to buy beer on display.

“We use a lot of stuff to get customers’ attention, like stuffed animals, giveaways and prizes,” Quinn said. Recent giveaways have included glassware or a free bag of ice with purchase, a raffle for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle sponsored by Coors, and a radio tie-in with Rolling Rock to give away concert tickets and T-shirts.

Popular giveaways at Liquor Mart, in Boulder, CO, have included tickets to sporting events like Colorado Rockies and Avalanche baseball and hockey games.

Even small things like tree ornaments at holiday time can offer an extra incentive to customers to try a new or different beer.

Ways To Sample

“Our tasting bar is the best sales tool there is,” said Haskel’s Manning, “and one of the best educational tools, too.” The tasting bars in Haskel’s stores are usually open for four hours every Friday and Saturday and feature a minimum of four to six wines and at least one beer. Brewery reps are often on hand, especially during the holidays, to talk about beers being sampled.

State law in Kentucky requires the Party Source to recoup the cost of product being sampled, so Lewis usually charges 50 cents for a one-ounce sample. To encourage customers to try new products, Lewis usually donates the proceeds to charity. About one Saturday every month, stores will sample four or five beers.

Huiza generally does beer tastings at Red Carpet on a monthly basis to give customers a chance to try new beers, particularly when seasonal beers like Oktoberfest beers or Christmas ales come in.

Events

Special events give customers another reason to come into the store or see the store and its staff in a new light. A number of retailers have had good success hosting beer dinners at local restaurants.

Liquor Mart has hosted tastings at local restaurants, inviting local breweries to donate beer and reps to talk about them, and charging customers $10 or $15 a ticket to come and sample the brews. The restaurant usually provides appetizers as part of the ticket price.

Holding a tasting event for charity is another option. The latest off-site tasting hosted by Otto’s raised funds for a local charity.

As part of its monthly “Bacchus Wine Society” functions, Haskel’s recently sponsored a beer cruise aboard an excursion boat on the Mississippi River. For $25 per person, the cruise featured about three dozen beers and hors d’oeuvres, and brewers gave away T- shirts, glassware and raffled off an assortment of beer as a grand prize.

Use your newsletter and word-of-mouth among your customers to offer to supply holiday office parties, and suggest that they try a beer tasting as something different this year.

Cross-Promoting

Displaying beer in unexpected areas of the store is another sure way to grab attention and pique customer interest.

“Beer and food is an exploding universe,” said Lewis. “A lot of space in our stores is devoted to beer, but we cross-merchandise beer and wine with food.” Bottles of beer and wine are displayed in the stores’ deli cases alongside foods they pair well with. Lewis also spices up specialty food displays with micros or other beers that would go well with them. An end-cap display, for example, might feature a dozen hot sauces and six different Central American beers.

The tasting bars at Haskel’s are a good place to display beers, according to Manning, and sometimes wines are mixed in with beer displays and vice versa.

Since beer can make a great holiday gift, merchandising beer with other products can generate additional gift ideas and sales for customers. Try displaying Scotch ales with single malt Scotch, or California micros with California wines.

Types Of Signage

Wherever your beers are displayed, nearby signage, even if it’s only a price tag, has to clearly communicate a message to customers. Some retailers have found that the point-of-sale materials provided by brewers works best with their displays. Others said that simple, unobtrusive signage is more appropriate in their stores.

“We try to stay away from typical point-of-sale and do things with a more ‘hand-made’ look,” said Worden of Martin Wine Cellar. “We want to have our own unique look.”

With the plethora of brands and beer styles out now, many retailers are adding more to their displays. Worden matches beer reviews from magazines with beer displays to help educate customers.

Huiza puts up educational shelf talkers on his warm shelves and on floor stacks of beers, hoping to spur consumers to buy. Often, he’ll print a smaller version that can be stuck in a six-pack to take home.

Curtis Liquor’s Quinn also uses shelf cards with the staff’s own tasting notes or articles from magazines and posts them near beer displays. “People can use the language on the cards to impress their friends,” he said jokingly.

To advertise special promotions or prices, don’t forget signs in other areas of the store. Posters or banners in the windows, a marquee out front, or ceiling danglers all can direct customer attention to the products you want to sell. Lots of neon signs are what bring people into Centennial, according to Voss. During the holidays, light up those signs with Christmas tree lights or holiday decorations. Be creative.

Sorts Of Shelf Sets

“Here, you have to have as much cooler space as possible,” said Centennial’s Voss. “People in Texas aren’t much interested in buying warm beer, so cooler sets are very important. Even sets in our stores are not all the same. We’ve had to experiment and see what works best in each store. We want to sell more premiums and micros than popular beers, so we try to arrange the store to get customers to walk through a certain way.”

If you have a big push on Christmas ales or imports during the holidays, make sure those beers are at eye level on warm shelves and in the cooler in addition to being on end-caps or floor stacks. Remember, your store’s shelf sets also have an effect on customer traffic patterns.

Brewery Reps Helping

Because retail staff will be busier than usual during the holidays, let brewery reps do as much of the work as possible. Most are more than happy to help build displays for their brands and make sure they’re well-stocked. They will also help conduct tastings or samplings, attend beer dinners or make presentations to customers about beer.

“We’ve had brewers’ reps come in and just hang out by the coolers and talk about their beer,” said Otto’s Berger.

Salespeople Selling

Probably the best beer merchandisers are a store’s salespeople. Keep salespeople educated and excited about the beers in inventory, and they’ll sell them.

“We have a beer staff because our stores are so big,” said Lewis. “They’re always tasting new brews coming in, just like the wine staff does.”

“We consider a salesperson to be invaluable,” said Haskel’s Manning. “Their product knowledge comes back to us ten-fold, so we require the sales staff to taste whatever is offered at our tasting bar. And we meet every six weeks to taste 30 or 40 items and talk to a rep or some other expert.”

“It’s always a matter of the bottom line,” said Worden, of Martin’s, “but we try very hard to keep the staff educated. We sit down as a group with samples of beer, taste them, and bounce ideas off each other.”

Whether buttons, red Rudolph noses or Santa suits, make sure the sales staff is visible to customers.

So let’s hear it one more time. “On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

  • Twelve salespeople selling,
  • Eleven brewery reps helping,
  • Ten sorts of shelf sets,
  • Nine types of signage,
  • Eight cross-promotions,
  • Seven kinds of events,
  • Six ways to sample,
  • Five giveaways,
  • Four newsletters,
  • Three displays,
  • Two mix-and-match,
  • And a holiday gift basket or two.

Michael Sherer is a Seattle-based writer and consultant specializing in beverages and foodservice.

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