The Urban Grape’s tagline is “drink progressively.” The meaning is two-fold for this Boston-based retailer, which operates locations in both Chestnut Hill and the city’s South End.
On one hand, The Urban Grape is progressive in its use of retail strategy, technology and social media. On the other, the husband-and-wife ownership team of TJ and Hadley Douglas believe that each consumer’s palate progresses over time, and can be measured and then matched to an ideal wine list.
Where these two concepts meet is the core of The Urban Grape’s philosophy.
The Urban Grape does not organize wines by varietal or region on its shelves. The reasoning is this: because the makeup of wines differs so greatly within those categories, customers may struggle to find something new if they’re only searching by varietal or region.
To reduce wine buyers’ stress, TJ and Hadley arranged the wine section differently when they opened their first location in Chestnut Hill five years ago (the South End shop opened two years later).
Before the store buys bottles, Urban Grape employees taste test each one. Wines are then ranked on a scale based upon their initial body. “The body of a wine determines whether a drinker will be into them,” says TJ, who heads the company’s business operations.
The lightest are classified as 1W, with 10W as the heaviest. “Think of it as the difference between skim milk and heavy cream,” TJ says.
Bottles are then organized based on this 1-10W scale. These groupings, TJ believes, more accurately reflect similarities across wines than varietals or viticulture roots. The objective is to help customers find wines comparable to those that they already enjoy. Of course, this setup relies on a key bit of information: where on the W-scale customers like their wine.
To determine that number, both Urban Grape locations contain a tasting machine. The device pours samples from ten bottles, each representative of a wine’s body level from 1W to 10W. Customers in the stores can use this device (with employee assistance) to identify their palate preference.
“We’ll start them on a 1W, and they might say it’s too light,” TJ says. “So then we’ll go the other way and they might say it’s too sweet. And we’ll work our way in until we find what’s just perfect, like with Goldilocks.”
Once the customer finds his number, store employees can recommend other wines with the same W-number. TJ believes that this method is more effective and eye-opening than alternatives.
“Some customers come in and say they don’t like a certain types of wine because it’s too sweet. But that’s because they’ve only ever had sweeter versions of that wine, and have built up a misconception,” he says. “What they really mean is that they don’t like wine that’s too sweet, regardless of the type.”
“Our system allows customers to explore more wines, without their blinders on,” he adds.
Within wines grouped by their body numbers, The Urban Grape further organizes bottles by price. More expensive products are, naturally, located on top. TJ calls the overall concept “Progressive Shelving,” a phrase the company has trademarked.
“We will find you whatever your palate tells us that you like, and then sell it at your price point,” he explains. “Our mission is to take intimidation out of beverages.
As part of that mission, the Urban Grape uses the Light Speed POS system, which digitally collects and categorizes information from customer purchases. This includes the wines customers have purchased in the past, arranged by W-Scale. Armed with this data, employees already know which bottles to recommend for returning customers.
Guesswork in trying new wines is replaced by scientific analysis, which is further beneficial because TJ believes that palates evolve over time — into different tastes and styles.
“When people start drinking wine, it’s usually in college with boxed wine, because of the juiciness and alcohol,” he says. “Once they graduate and earn more money, they’ll move onto Zinfandel, and then Pinot Noir, because of the similar juiciness. But then they’ll branch out and discover Malbecs and more.”
The Urban Grape would seem well-positioned to assist customers along this journey of progressing palates thanks to the company’s novel shelving system, and also its focus on employee hospitality.
Hospitality in Retail
The Urban Grape seeks staff who can balance expertise with sociability. In his previous career, TJ created wine menus for restaurants (which is where he first employed a progressive wine format). He is familiar with the hospitality business, and wanted to bring elements of its customer service to liquor retail.
“Employees here have to be able to sell within The Urban Grape philosophy, but while also using their own personality,” he explains. “We hire here based largely on personality, along with education, knowledge and availability. But you can always train someone who has a great personality.”
The interview process is “pretty intense,” he admits. It includes a trial run, in which candidates work the sales floor on a busy night. This “stage” (a term TJ borrows from his restaurant days) helps determine whether the applicant is a good fit for Urban Grape — and vice versa.
The company provides staff with 401k, health insurance and other benefits. “We want to invest in our employees’ mental wellbeing,” TJ says. “You know the saying: If you have happy employees, you have happy customers.”
Training never stops after someone is hired. TJ takes notes about new products on Evernote, a digital note-taking service, which the staff is required to read. “We have educated consumers who come in already knowing key wine terms, so we need to have educated staff as well,” he explains. “Most of our staff also taste every product we bring in.”
With the education, sampling and Progressive Shelving, TJ puts his workers in the best position to succeed. “It’s a very easy system for the staff to sell, while also being honest to the customer,” he says.
The other half of the husband and wife ownership team is Hadley Douglas. “I’m the face and the palate of The Urban Grape,” TJ says, “and she’s the voice.”
Hadley handles all of the company’s marketing, relying on her background in PR and communications. Similar to how TJ has utilized hospitality strategies from his former career, Hadley has brought brand management into the alcohol retail industry.
“I wanted to rip out all the pages about liquor-store marketing from the past, and start anew,” she recalls. “I wanted to create a lifestyle brand around the store.” The Urban Grape’s website features a blog maintained by Hadley, which reinforces the company’s brand.
“It’s very much about our story, how we use wine and food in our lives, and all the traveling that we do around wine,” she continues. “I wanted to be in everyone’s lives, showing them why it’s important to go to the wine store and get better service.”
This meant eschewing traditional advertising techniques in favor of modern methods. Digital technology allows Urban Grape to promote its lifestyle brand across multiple channels frequented each day by a great number of people.
“I write our newsletter and we’re on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter – all the usual suspects,” Hadley explains.
Although that approach may be standard practice for the brands Hadley once represented, it’s nothing normal in her new industry. “I think in liquor stores, you don’t see retailers taking more of the brand-oriented approach,” she says.
This marketing strategy is not without its daily grind, as anyone who works in social media can attest. “I think there’s a huge amount of pressure to be present in our brand,” Hadley says. “Sometimes when I put dinner down onto the table, my kids will ask, ‘Why can’t we eat until mommy takes a picture first?’”
Fittingly, with Hadley positioning The Urban Grape as a lifestyle brand, her children have provided social-media inspiration. “I was doing a blog about one of our trips, and my son was scrolling through onscreen,” she recalls. “He said to me, ‘I think this would be better if you put in pictures of me and my brother.’ People really respond to seeing kids on Facebook.”
“I try to keep it fresh and fun online,” she adds. “I’m always introducing new products, but I make it about education, not just, ‘Here’s the product of the week.’ I want to make people feel comfortable walking through our door. I want to remove any intimidation about seeing our wall of wine.”
Hadley is considering a series of short, online videos. They would depict customers using the tasting machine to determine their palate, and selecting an appropriate bottle from the wall. The Urban Grape also has plans to launch a new website. Even with all these new ideas and platforms, Hadley does not intend to stray too far from what’s been working.
“Our message is about finding your palate, finding your voice. And our store’s system, the whole approach, makes that easy,” she says. “It’s up to me to make sure that that experience is being carried through by everything we do outside the store.”
Beer and Spirits
The Urban Grape extends its progressive philosophy to stocking beer and other products. The company is continuing to expand its beer focus with the offshoot program called Urban Hops, which includes another novel shelving system.
“We used to arrange beers by style,” TJ says. “Just a few weeks ago, we switched over to arranging by their predominant format: malts, hops or yeast.”
Similar to wine, The Urban Grape further organizes beers within format groups on a 1-10 scale of intensity.
“People are making so many styles of beer nowadays, so this makes more sense,” TJ says. “For beer novices, this is much easier to understand. Do you like hops? Yes or No? Malts? Yeast? And to what extent?”
“But this is also good for beer geeks,” he adds, “because now they can head straight for the 9s and 10s, and try much different beers that are made for their more-developed palates.”
Whiskey is arranged based on style and taste, and by price point. “I can’t keep anything brown in stock,” TJ says. Because whiskey can be expensive, The Urban Grapes keeps around opened bottles for customers to sample.
“Buying whiskey is an investment,” TJ explains. “You keep a bottle of whiskey around for a long time. It’s something you fall in and out of.”
Stocked next to whiskey is tequila, because “a lot of whiskey drinkers are also tequila drinkers, they just don’t know it yet,” TJ laughs. The Urban Grape also stocks and organizes other spirits in progressive setups, including premium rum, sake, gin, bitters and liqueur.
Urban Grape emphasizes its in-store tastings, which take place three times per week. A large wooden table dominates one end of the South End store, with window seats and pillows set up for customers to relax with their wine, beer or spirit samples.
“This gives people the opportunity to walk into our store learn about new products with no pressure to buy,” TJ says.
The South End store attracts many walk-ins, since it’s located in a high-traffic pedestrian area. Pets are allowed in The Urban Grape, as well.
The free tastings are held every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When reps or creators sample their products in the South End location, the store asks them so sign a backroom door. Signatures and messages now stretch across this door from top to bottom, representing everyone from industry greats to up-and-comers.
This literal wall of comments from the store’s many connections is symbolic of a company that effectively blends progressive strategies with traditional service and hospitality.