‘Beer kind of sells itself,’ quipped Tom Downey, manager of Heritage Wine & Liquor in Centennial, CO. Of course, Downey is quick to note that his statement applies mostly to familiar brands like Coors, Bud and Miller with national advertising and marketing programs; lesser-known labels and craft brews do need active, local promotion.
Indeed, in these difficult economic times, retailers are dialing in store displays and revamping beer signage for optimum efficiency ‘ often with help from suppliers, large and small. The craft brew invasion has made hand-selling of brands a must. Ditto for in-store beer tastings, samplers and special events. But the big news is web-based merchandising and social media ‘ Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc. ‘ new tools to promote products and the retailers themselves.
KEEP IT FRESH
When it comes to beer displays, ‘Keep moving it around, keep it fresh,’ advised Jim Rilee, district manager and buyer, Bottle King, Livingston, N.J. Bottle King has a ‘warehouse look,’ which is echoed in its displays. ‘Displays in our stores tend to be pretty large because of our large volume,’ noted Rilee.
‘Display and signage offer the biggest payback,’ believes Downey. The best displays are always closest to the beer doors, he added. When constructing displays, Downey has a formula: They should not exceed 20 cases, because that’s all Heritage can afford in terms of floor space for any one product. Additionally, beer displays should never exceed six cases high for bottles, and 11 cases high for cans. Why? ‘Shop-ability,’ Downey said. ‘Say your grandmother was shopping, she can’t lift a case that’s chest high into her cart,’ he explained. The beer has to be accessible if it is going to sell.
When it comes to dressing up those displays to make them more attractive, Heritage often relies on help from suppliers. New Colorado state legislation, however, won’t permit dealer-loader items over $15 on the displays. ‘That’s pretty much restricted us to cut-outs and case cards,’ lamented Downey.
At Lukas Liquor Superstore, Ellisville, MO, assistant manager James Jokerst manages to fit three separate displays on his end-caps by running them in different orientations for maximum merchandising. ‘Keep displays high so they’re in natural sight range,’ advised Jokerst. He also employs beer-garden-style umbrellas over the beer displays, both to attract attention and keep harmful light away from the bottles.
Space isn’t at a premium at Winchester Wine & Spirits, in Winchester, MA. The beer wall is a full 100 feet long; there’s also a 27-door beer cooler. ‘The store used to be a car dealership,’ explained owner James Alexander, ‘so we have tons of room.’ Displaying over 1,000 different beers, the display wall is arranged by country of origin and further broken down by regions.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
‘Signage is key,’ said Downey. ‘You need the whole WIS [What Is Saved] program ‘ listing the current price, what it was and customer savings.’
Bottle King is putting up more shelf talkers to promote its beer selections these days. ‘They’ve worked well for wine for years,’ noted Rilee. ‘It’s good to see that the better beers are using them as well.’ For the most part, suppliers provide the tasting notes, but the store uses a computer program to produce colorful signs that appear to be handmade.
‘At Lukas we do a lot of research on our beers,’ said Jokerst, to help merchandise products. The store writes, prints and laminates its own shelf-talkers.
LENDING A HAND
Of course, shelf talkers and signage can only sway customers so far. That’s when a dedicated and well-informed staffer steps in to close the deal. Retailers agree: hand-selling is an important merchandising tool.
‘Hand-selling is important throughout our operation,’ agreed Rilee. Bottle King has several employees who specialize in beer.
‘My staffers are passionate and knowledgeable about beer,’ said Alexander. ‘We quiz each other constantly.’ Educational posters are displayed throughout the store, including in the restrooms.
In addition, at Heritage, at least, local reps and brewers will often come into the store to help hand-sell their products, said Downey.
‘Every Friday night, we offer complimentary beer tastings,’ said Alexander, which are well attended by an average 100 customers weekly. Six to eight beers are spotlighted and paired with foods indigenous to the beers’ origins. Winchester Wine & Spirits has two chefs on staff and an on-premise kitchen. ‘Everyone pairs wines with food but very few are pairing beer with food,’ noted Winchester’s owner.
Lukas offers tastings nearly every Friday evening. ‘And, if a producer comes to town, we can schedule a special tasting pretty quickly,’ pointed out Jokerst.
New Jersey liquor regulations prohibit retailers there from offering in-store beer tastings. ‘But currently there’s a big push to change that law,’ said Bottle King’s Rilee.
‘Laws in Colorado are very strict,’ echoed Downey. Retailers are only allowed one three-hour tasting session a week, and Heritage uses that opportunity to mostly offer wine and liquor samples. ‘We will do a beer tasting,’ said the manager, ‘but only if the margins are good; usually high-end craft brews.’
PICK A PACK
Closely allied to tastings are samplers: in 6, 12 and case packs.
‘Sampler packs are getting a lot more attention from customers,’ observed Rilee at Bottle King. The packages make great gifts at holiday time.
At Winchester, customers can put together their own sampler 6-pack, selecting from among 400 bottles. ‘That way they can try several different beers without committing to a single 6-pack,’ pointed out the owner. Many of those sampler customers are members of Winchester’s Beer of the Month Club, who get special discounts on featured selections. And they wanted more.
‘We got feedback from customers, asking for a more high-end 6-pack,’ recalled Alexander. He created the Winchester Six, a changing selection of six rare and prized brews such as Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA and Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Even though the pricey 6-packs retail for around $50-$60, ‘We can’t keep them in stock,’ he said.
THE BIG EVENT
Although putting together big promotional events takes a lot of time and money, the rewards can be considerable, both in a bump in beer sales and increased visibility for the retailer.
‘We had a Clydesdale from Anheuser-Busch right out in front of the store,’ recalled Jokerst. Lukas Liquor Superstore sold a lot of Bud and Bud Light that day. It also garnered the store some free publicity. Similarly, customers took notice the time a conservation officer showed up at the retailer with an American Bald Eagle as a promotion for a local craft brewer. ‘We also promote the heck out of the macros before SuperBowl weekend,’ added Jokerst.
‘Super Bowl, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, those are all great beer holidays,’ agreed Rilee. Recently, Bottle King partnered with a restaurant for a beer dinner. Not only was the Boston Beer Company promotion well attended by customers, but it also helped sales. ‘People got to try lots of different Samuel Adams beers paired with food,’ pointed out Rilee. ‘Then they come back to the store afterwards to buy the ones they liked.’
Every year, Denver hosts the Great American Beer Festival. Heritage tags along on the coattails of the world’s largest indoor beer event, selling tickets and advertising the festival in the store. Local microbrews get a great deal of attendant press, said Downey, which helps store sales. ‘People in Colorado love their beers, so it’s an easier sell.’
Winchester Wine & Spirits holds three grand tastings a year. Just about 1,000 people attended the last one in November, when, in addition to wine and spirits producers offering samples, 10 brewing companies poured a range of beers. ‘They’re huge events,’ said owner Alexander
WEAVING THE WEB
Just as it has everything else, the internet is transforming beer merchandising. Online sales directly from retailers websites are growing, although that is often stymied by restrictive regulations. Currently, for example, Bottle King’s website focuses on wine because the company can’t sell beer online.
Other retailers are still exploring this new sales venue.
‘Our website is constantly growing, but we’re still in the baby stages with it,’ concedesd Jokerst. However, Lukas also boasts a blog and sends out e-mails to customers about rarities or special deals.
In the merchandiser’s quiver of promotion tools are an increasing number of ways to grab customers’ attention: informational blogs, targeted e-mailing and social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Heritage Wine & Liquor has a Facebook page, reported Downey. One of the store’s managers also writes a regular blog called ‘What’s New in Booze,’ which includes a lot of high-end beers.
TEXT ‘N’ TWEET
‘Social media is the core of how we market the product,’ declared Winchester’s Alexander. ‘Our main drive is our websites and the feedback we get.’ Winchester has five websites and an e-mail list of nearly 6,000 names ‘ and growing. Details of weekly tastings, grand tastings and other events are communicated to customers via mass e-mail blasts. The retailer also solicits information on customer preferences via e-mail surveys; that data allow it to precisely target messages about discounts on or allocations of specific beers. ‘We know the customers likely to buy a beer and it’s often sold before we even get the cases inside the front door.’
Beyond e-mails, Winchester sends text messages to targeted customers’ cell phones. ‘The text will say, for example, ‘special deal just for you, today only, Allagash Interlude, 20% off during the hours of 4-7 pm,’’ explained Alexander.
‘We Tweet like crazy. We’re on Yelp, Facebook, MySpace, MerchantCircle, LocalEvent,’ added the retailer.
‘We got our name out and now it’s feeding itself,’ said Alexander about the social media connections. ‘All we had to do was back up what we said we were going to do. Customers know they can rely on us.’