When ‘Leon B.’ wrote a glowing review of Medfield Wine Shoppe on Yelp.com, he summed up his experience with the Massachusetts retailer by saying that the store’s staff ‘engage their patrons in intelligent ways to get them just the right wines.’
That is exactly what Matthew Carroll, the store’s owner, aims for.
‘When my wife and I opened the store, we wanted it to be all about relationships. We wanted it to be like an old country store, where we watch our customers’ families grow over the years and they watch ours,’ he said. ‘We are in a small enough town [Medfield, MA, population approximately 12,000] that we know all our customers ‘ and we know their palettes as well as we know our own. We can suggest wines to them that fit their tastes.’
If anything, retailers in the 21st century have more ways to connect with customers than the country store retailer of old did, with increasingly interactive websites, email blasts, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
Sometimes, in fact, their relationships are personal even though they are entirely ‘virtual.’
‘Just the other day, I had a customer from Atlanta tell me in an email that, though we have never met, he feels that he knows me,’ said David Posner, owner of Grapes: The Wine Company, in White Plains, NY.
‘The days of marketing individual wines are gone,’ said Posner. ‘We have a steady client base who trusts us. Yes, people can search online and order by price but they are looking for someone to trust. Customer service, at the end of the day, still rules.’
Put Yourself Out There
So, while these wine retailers still feature this wine in an in-store tasting or that winemaker at a wine dinner, or write a tweet about this special price or an email blast about that hard-to-get wine, the overall aim of their marketing is to establish themselves as the people to turn to, for all matters relating to wine.
Posner does this with an almost daily online newsletter he has been sending to customers since 2003. ‘It’s a very simple format, it’s pretty focused and we’ve got a client list who enjoy reading it,’ he said. Over time, this newsletter has led to Posner launching a blog, which bills itself as ‘musings about the daily life of a wine retailer.’ Less lists of wine, his posts and newsletters are filled with personal stories.
‘With Twitter,’ he pointed out, ‘some retailers use it just to promote a certain wine. That’s the exact opposite of what people want to see. They want a human element. They want to see a person.’
K&L Wine Merchants, with stores in San Francisco, Redwood City and Hollywood, stress the personal on their website, www.klwines.com, by allowing customers to follow the reviews of particular store staff members. Each staff member’s wine reviews ‘ and some have written up hundreds of wines ‘ are listed and are sortable. Each staff member’s bio is just a click away and they can be emailed directly.
They can also become the customer’s ‘personal sommelier.’ Customers can sign up for a completely customizable monthly wine service, choosing which staff member will select their wines as well as the number of bottles, the price range, the regions and grape varieties to be used. K&L will even automatically exclude any wines that their records show the customer has ever bought in the past so that the customer is always getting new things to try. As K&L says on its website, ‘We take the gamble out of buying wines.’
Home-grown wine reviews, reviews written by staff members on a wine retailer’s own website, are a good way to connect with customers. Like K&L, Pike & Western Wine Shop in Seattle, WA posts signed reviews, along with its staff members’ bios, on its website. The reviews are definitely personalized. In one, Maureen Brennan, whose bio notes that she was one of Pike & Western’s first customers, back in 1975 when she was planning her wedding, writes about the meal she made to go with the wine she’s reviewing.
The Pike & Western website, www.pikeandwestern.com, has a news section that is a list of all the store’s newest wine arrivals. Click on any one of them to get a pithy ‘ and conversational ‘ review. One, for Damilano Barbera d’Asti ‘Arancio’ 2008, starts out ‘Try finding a better $13 Barbera, I dare you.’ Another, for Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008, begins ‘Honig is cool. I just want to get that out.’
Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops, a two-store operation in North Dakota, has recently begun using its Facebook page to have a personal presence online. Happy Harry’s does not focus on using Facebook as a direct sales tool. Instead, it looks to start conversations with customers. Sometimes, store staff members will post questions to get the comments ‘ and the conservation ‘ going. They recently posted a video clip of an old Happy Harry television commercial, starring owner Hal Gershman, circa 1988. And when a customer posts a question, often if the stores carry a particular product, Happy Harry’s is right there to answer. Happy Harry’s, which started using Facebook nine months ago, currently has over 2,000 Facebook friends.
At first, Jill Bernheimer’s wine retailing business was entirely online. She started Domaine547 (domaine547.com) in 2006. Last year, she expanded into the ‘real’ world with Domaine LA, her new store in Los Angeles. And Bernheimer has found a way to meld her online marketing with her in-store marketing. She runs a picture and a funny and flattering write-up of her ‘customer of the day,’ including a description of what they bought, on Domaine LA’s Facebook page.
‘Most of my business is now in the store. It used to be 100% online, of course. Now it is 90% in-store, and then rest is done either online, or by email and phone with customers from the old ‘online’ days,’ she said.
‘I believe most people use the internet as a research tool when shopping for wine. A small percentage still buys online compared to the overall wine buying market. Those who buy online are most likely looking for something very specific (something they read about, whether online or in print), something collectible, or something that they’ve had that they’re price-shopping on. Twitter can alert them of deals, but I see Twitter and Facebook more as community building spaces,’ Bernheim said.
The internet has given retailers access to their customers that is both immediate and cheap. Medfield’s Carroll, for example, remains a big fan of email. ‘When I taste a wine and I know which customers might like it, well, I might not see those customers [in the store] for a month or two, but I can reach out immediately with an email,’ he explained. ‘Over the last year, our email campaigns have made a dramatic difference.’
‘That’s where people are these days,’ Carroll continued, ‘in front of their computers. It’s important for us, as retailers, to be on that computer. We’re always out there.’
Carroll manages his email campaigns using Constant Contact, an email and social-media marketing system designed for small businesses. Carroll only sends email blasts ‘at most weekly or even a couple times a month,’ he said. ‘We don’t want to drive people nuts.’
Sometimes, when Carroll can get a special deal for an expensive wine ($50 and above), he will send out an email blast asking customers if they would like to place an order. ‘Rather than carry a big inventory ‘ especially for a product that’s $50-plus ‘ I can order enough to fulfill the customer orders I get,’ he explained.
For all the wonders of the internet, face-to-face contact with customers is still vitally important, especially with a product such as wine, which, in the end, needs to be tasted. While Mike Teer, owner of Pike & Western Wine Shop in Seattle, WA, has long had a website and has long sent out a weekly email, he explained, ‘I only want to spend so many hours at the computer. I’m an old-fashioned brick & mortar retailer and believe that the best thing I can do is be here, in the store. People want to talk to us.’
To that end, Teer holds lots of tastings, including at least two a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, in-store.
The one on Friday afternoons is free of charge. Teer writes of these, on the store’s website (www.pikeandwestern.com), ‘We open a couple of bottles that you can taste while shopping for your weekend wine.’ These tend to be more value-oriented, everyday wines.
On Wednesday afternoons, there is a charge, $5 per person. ‘Wednesday’s wines are top-notch wines that you don’t generally see at tastings,’ explained Teer.
In addition, Teer often holds more formal tastings, also in the store but after-hours, on Wednesday evenings. Customers need to make a reservation to attend, which they can do online at the store’s website, and there is a charge.
These after-hour tastings take two forms, what Teer refers to as ‘front room tastings,’ stand-up tastings for up to 30 people, and ‘back room tastings,’ sit-down events, for ten people or less, of more hard-to-find wines.
Teer has also teamed up with an area restaurateur to hold off-site tastings. The restaurateur, an old friend of Teer’s, owns a restaurant company, Tom Douglas Restaurants, which has five restaurants, including a catering site called the Palace Ballroom, all but one of which is within walking distance of Pike & Western.
The wine shop and the restaurant company pool their email lists, which is a boon for Pike & Western. The Tom Douglas restaurants are some of the most popular in Seattle and the company has an email list of about 30,000 addresses.
When choosing which wines to feature at these events or at his in-store tastings, Teer looks for the unique. And he wants to deal with smaller wineries, where he is working with the people who make the wine, rather than with a bigger company and a marketing rep. ‘I want to close the gap between the producer and the final user, if you will,’ said Teer.
Again, it is all about the personal. Like many retailers, Teer feels the ideal situation is when he, as a retailer, can introduce his customers to a winemaker. Carroll of Medfield Wine Shoppe agreed. ‘Customers get a kick out of meeting the people behind the wines, especially the winemaker or the owner,’ he said.
Posner of Grapes The Wine Company has a producer event ‘ with someone representing the winery in attendance ‘ once a month. These are planned out for a year in advance. Generally, there are about 15 wines available for tasting as well as food and the events are free of charge.
In addition to that, once a year, Posner holds a huge wine tasting, with 150 wines available, at an area restaurant. This event includes dinner.
And this is in addition to his regular Friday and Saturday in-store tastings. For each of those days, he has three wines open in the store.
‘Our customers have the opportunity, through us, of tasting 40 wines a month or 600 to 700 wines a year,’ Posner pointed out.
And regardless of who else is in attendance at an event, Pike & Western’s Teer makes sure that his people are on hand to pour and talk about the wine. ‘I always like our people to be on hand as experts,’ he said. ‘All of this is ‘brand building,’ positioning ourselves ‘ with unique events, smaller producers, real people, great value ‘ so people will come to us.’
Medfield Wine Shoppe in Massachusetts always has a six to twelve wines open for tasting on the weekends. ‘We always have a counter full of wine,’ said Carroll. ‘Customers are always going to be able to come in and taste. If they’re skeptical about a recommendation we’re making, we’re able to convert them, then and there.’
Whether the connection is made online or face to face, there is a whole world of wine lovers and potential wine lovers out there, waiting to meet someone whose recommendations they trust. ‘You’ve got to reach out and say hello,’ said Carroll.
Building a Top Promotion
When you hear that a beverage company has been doing the same promotion for 20 years, perhaps your initial reaction is ‘Ho hum.’
But in the case of Sutter Home’s ‘Build a Better Burger’ contest, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the promotion just keeps building on itself.
‘Build a Better Burger started as a small recipe contest to show that everyday food such as a burger pairs really well with everyday wine,’ explained Wendy Nyberg, senior marketing director for Sutter Home Winery. ‘Over the past 20 years, it has grown into one of the largest and most prestigious recipe contests in the country.’
The ‘Build a Better Burger’ contest is now one of the longest-running cooking competitions of any type in the country and receives close to 10,000 entries each year. ‘Several finalists and winners have left their ‘day jobs’ to pursue careers in cooking as a result of their experience at Build a Better Burger,’ said Jeffrey Starr, culinary director and executive chef for Trinchero Family Estates, the company that owns the Sutter Home brand.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the contest, Starr and James McNair, who has been a judge of the contest since it began and is a prolific cookbook author in his own right, wrote a cookbook called Burger Parties, which was recently published by Ten Speed Press. The book (176 pages, list price $19.99) features winning recipes from over the years as well as extensive ideas and tips for holding ‘burger parties’ and information about pairing wines with the burgers and with other foods.
In addition, the contest remains cutting edge in its use of social media. This year, the ‘Build a Better Burger Contest’ has its own Twitter and Facebook sites as well as its own blog and Sutter Home has developed a mobile tag that engages consumers with the contest website through their smart phones. Potential contestants can watch videos featuring Starr, a chef, giving tips on how to submit a winning burger. Fans and followers of the cook-off will get up-to-the-minute results on Facebook, Twitter and the Sutter Home blog as the burgers are being judged at the cook-off.
This year’s contest, which started accepting entries on March 1 and will continue to do so through July 31, will be judged by several celebrity chefs, including Daisy Martinez, host of Viva Daisy! on the Food Network; Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, aka The Hearty Boys, owners of The Hearty Boys Catering and also the hosts of several shows on The Food Network; Lucy Buffett, cookbook author and owner of LuLu’s at Homeport Marina, in Gulf Shores, AL; Fran Carpentier, senior editor of Parade Magazine; and Pam Anderson, food columnist for USA Weekend.
At the cook-off held at Sutter Home Winery on Saturday, September 25, 2010, one contestant will win the $100,000 grand prize.