SHOW & TELL

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Hard to believe that summer’s almost here, but it is. After a winter of hard rain on the West Coast, Alberta Clippers in the Midwest, ice storms in the Northeast, tornadoes in the southeast, and a little of everything in the Southwest, no doubt consumers are ready for some sun. And except for baseball, backyard barbecues and beaches, nothing goes better with warm weather than beer. As usual, the big brewers have big plans to capture consumer attention this summer. In addition to all the whiz-bang promotions you’re likely to hear about through your wholesalers, you can devise your own strategies to build store traffic and steer customers toward your more profitable items.

Merchandising is the key to higher volume, faster turns and more profit, according to retailers we talked to. Here are some of their most effective merchandising techniques.

The first rule is you can’t sell it if you can’t see it. On the floor, on a shelf or in the cooler, you have to display products if you want customers to pick them up. What works in your store will depend largely on your store size and layout and what your customers find appealing — something you can discover through a little trial and error. A few key factors to consider are:

* Size. Size counts, but bigger is not always better. Big displays attract a lot of attention and make a statement. Unless you have room to spare for monster displays, save them for truly special promotions — a big blowout price or a really unique consumer sweepstakes. Since brewers usually run their biggest and best promotion during the summer, you have your pick of brands and p-o-s materials to use for your big displays.

“We try to make the displays that are out on the floor better and more impressive by not putting too many out there at once,” said Todd Jacobson, store manager and beer buyer at Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop, Grand Forks, ND. “Those that warrant the space get it.” His beer displays range in size from 300 to 2,000 cases.

“We have limited space for displays,” said Keith Hanson, Hi-Time Cellars, Costa Mesa, CA. “We’ll merchandise something on the floor if we have a good price or if it’s something people can’t get elsewhere. People are always looking for cold beer, so we have 30 cooler doors and put up signs on the doors for featured products.”

* Shape. Without the luxury of abundant floor space, you may be relegated to stacking a few cases wherever you have room — as end-aisle displays or near the register. Where you do have room, get creative with the shape of your displays. “Displays have to have visual appeal and be practical to maintain,” said Brett Pontini, manager of Binny’s Beverage Depot, Schaumburg, IL. “We build different shapes instead of just blocks and use different products to let packaging colors make it visually appealing. We try to show a decent amount of glass but make it as easy to grab a case as possible.”

* Positioning. Where you put a display can have just as much effect on how much it’s shopped as how big it is.

“Positioning is key,” said Joe Jameson, a beer buyer at Kappy’s Liquors, based in Everett, MA. “I know where the best spots are on the floor. I know where things will sell. The idea is to use displays to block traffic.”

“I’ll merchandise most prominently my highest-margin items,” said Binny’s Pontoni.

* Themes. As silly as it seems, the kid in all of us likes to play dress-up, and customers often are attracted to displays you’ve dressed up, too.

“We have a merchandising table in the back of the market,” said Brian Miracle, beverage manager at V. Richards, the high-styled Brookfield, WI, supermarket. “Right now it has an Italian theme, with pastas, oils, sauces, Italian wines and Italian beers. We did a Mardi Gras theme and will do a Cinco de Mayo theme.”

Themes can be as simple as red, white and blue signage to celebrate Independence Day to an elaborate beach scene with sand, palm trees, beach umbrella and wading pool. Wholesalers and brewers often have props that go with promotions and tie in nicely to summer themes of camping, picnics, barbecues and beaches. So many craft brewers produce summer seasonals now that they can make an interesting theme display of their own.

Say It With Signage

“A good display will sell beer without someone coming up and saying, “Have you tried this?'” said Pontoni.

Good signage helps sell by answering as many of a customer’s questions as possible. Though they’ll never replace knowledgeable salespeople, signs steer customers where you want them to go and help persuade them to buy.

“We try to provide as much information as possible,” said Robert Trone, of the six-store Liquor World chain, Claymont, DE. “We put down descriptions, flavor and, how to differentiate lines from one another.”

At Town Wine & Spirits, Rumsford, RI, signs follow product as it’s rotated around the store to bring people in the door and guide them through the store. A new product, for example, may get a 50-case display on the floor with special signage. When the feature is over, the brand may get a smaller display, and then it’s eventually moved to the warm shelf where it still gets a sign to let people know it’s still in stock.

Shelf talkers with product and flavor descriptions and a review or magazine write-up of the beer are popular with many retailers. A number of stores, like Schaefer’s, in Skokie, IL, offer their own comments about beers on shelf talkers. Retailers also provide the same information on case cards used for floor displays, creating their own instead of using p-o-s provided by brewers.

While most retailers said a fair price was the best incentive to get customers to buy, price features aren’t the only way to promote beer. Raffles, giveaways, gift-packs and special events also can draw customers in and give them reasons to buy.

Glass giveaways work well at V. Richards, according to Miracle. Offering a weiss beer glass with the purchase of hefeweizen boosts sales.

“In the summer, we use about 80% of wholesale’s p-o-s because I like to get things I can give away to customers,” said Mike O’Neill, beer manager at Town Wine. “We’ll give away glasses or a leather jacket. We’ve gotten tickets to hockey games and raffled them off to people who buy a particular brand. People remember it and keep coming back to see if they won. One brand gave us a bike, and we’ve raffled off a kayak and camping gear in the past.”

The store also has a beer-of-the-month club that gives customers a chance to try two six-packs of individually selected beers each month at a special price. The store packs and actually delivers each order.

Summer Sales Spectaculars

Special events generate more store traffic in addition to boosting sales. Kappy’s often ties in with local radio stations to do promotions. The radio station will send a crew down to the store to do a remote broadcast. A brewer or wholesaler will make merchandise available to the station to give away to customers who come down to the store. The store benefits from the publicity and additional store traffic.

“We once had a pig and a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the store at the same time,” said Jameson. “We sold a lot of beer, though the pig had a nervous breakdown.”

Schaefer’s hosts an annual summer tent sale, putting up a tent in the parking lot for a weekend. Beer, wine and food is on sale, giving customers a chance to sample a tremendous variety of new things as well as old favorites. Raffle drawings are held frequently for prizes from T-shirts to a limo ride, and from a catered picnic to the summer concert series at nearby Ravinia Park. Customers love the atmosphere and the fun involved in the tent sale.

Another type of special event that more retailers are having success with is the beer dinner. V. Richards recently hosted a Belgian beer dinner. The store’s catering department provided a six-course meal for the event. A local wholesaler and lover of Belgian ales was invited to host the event and present a different beer with each course. Pairings included gratin of mussels on Belgian endive with Saison Dupont Farmhouse Ale and Flemish beef stew with Affligem Dobbel Abbey Ale.

Participation was limited to 40 guests at $50 per person. The evening gave the store a chance to show off its beer selection and catering department to potential customers and exposed people who normally buy wine in the store to beer. Miracle has organized several other beer dinners, usually at around $20 per person and makes them even more fun by raffling off gift baskets, glassware, T-shirts or tickets to the next beer dinner.

Cross-merchandising is another effective way to put beer in front of your customers. Displaying beer in different areas of the store and bringing other products into the beer area heightens customer awareness of products you have to offer and contributes to impulse sales.

“We focus a lot on seasonal beers,” said Liquor World’s Trone, “and we try to integrate beer into the wine section. We have display racks that fit in the wine section for six-packs. We merchandise all our summer beers together. It attracts beer drinkers and those who don’t drink beer to try something different.”

At V. Richards, Miracle cross-merchandises food and beer. During Mardi Gras, he promoted Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager with Cajun food. During Cinco de Mayo he coordinates Mexican food and Mexican beers.

Ultimately, the best way to sell beer — or any product — is to let customers try it, retailers said. Where legal, sampling is one of the most effective sales tools.

Happy Harry’s usually schedules tastings on Fridays and Saturdays, picking two or three beers from a new supplier to sample in one-ounce servings. Though it can’t advertise tastings, Town Wine & Spirits also hosts them on Fridays or Saturdays. A recent tasting featuring a craft brew from Connecticut was so successful that the brewer was autographing six-pack carriers.

At Red Carpet, tastings are held once or twice a month. Huiza usually invites someone from the brewery to come and talk about the beers. The store usually serves food, too, such as gourmet pizza or Thai cuisine. Even if you can’t offer samples, it can pay to have a brewery or wholesaler rep come to the store to promote a particular brand.

Sell The Sizzle

Ultimately, effective selling means telling your customers why they should buy one brand over another. Merchandising techniques, from displays and signs to newsletters and web pages, are designed to communicate with your customers. Many retailers agreed the best way to do that is to get out on the floor and talk to customers.

“I may build my own displays and write up descriptions,” said Miracle, “but it’s my job to tell people about beer.”

“The more of a story there is to tell about a product, the better it will do for us,” agreed Chick O’Leary, beer specialist at Schaefer’s. “When the brewer’s product is there in the bottle, consumers will respond. They’re now looking for the product that’s in the bottle, not just packaging and marketing.”

Customer service still plays a big part in what sells, whether it’s several cases of Bud Light or a mixed six-pack of Belgian ales. Telling and showing customers what you’ve got is essential.

“You have to let customers know what’s going on and what’s new,” said Hanson. “We make the staff aware by letting them taste and talk about beers.”

Show and tell — what could be easier? We’ve been doing that since we were kids.

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