Originally set to take place in Austin, TX, the Beverage Alcohol Retailers Conference (BARC) went virtual on Tuesday, September 15. Leading retailers, suppliers, and experts joined live broadcasts to discuss the state of the industry since Covid-19, recent challenges, emerging trends, and tips for improving efficiency, customer experience, and sales. Here are the top 5 takeaways from this year’s BARC. 

Navigating the Challenges of Online Sales

When Covid-19 hit and retailers across the country were forced to close, online sales were suddenly their lifeline. But many retailers weren’t prepared for the sudden shift. As it’s clear that online ordering is here to stay, speakers at the BARC shared their biggest challenges and learnings. 

In his keynote discussion, Gary Fisch, CEO of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in New Jersey, said that while Gary’s luckily already had an app, operations were not in place before the pandemic. “It allowed us to shift via technology, but [weren’t] geared up for thousands of orders a day. We had to shift our mindset, personnel, and resources,” he recalled, adding that they had to have crews coming in at 5 am and working after 10 pm just to catch up with all of the orders, plus adjust how they stock their online shelves, adding all of the products Gary’s doesn’t usually ship, like canned and boxed wine. 

Speaking on a panel that featured three of the top 100 retailers, Mike Moreno, vice president of Moreno’s Liquors in Chicago, IL, said he’s struggled to get his massive inventory — “I have 750 mezcals alone,” he quipped — online and up to date without overloading the system. 

On the same panel, TJ Douglas, owner of Urban Grape in Boston, MA, spoke to the challenges of managing a tech stack as an individual operator. He described communication issues between e-commerce platform and in-store platform, which caused order errors that led to a customer service nightmare and loss of profits. “We had to bring someone on to code it correctly,” he said. Now, “we’ve gained more customers and received fewer phone calls.”

Despite challenges with moving a retail business online, it was a key theme of the day that e-commerce is here to stay in the alcohol industry. “The future of this industry is a digital one,” said Mike Provance, CEO of 3×3. However, he noted that no more than 15 percent of all 50,000 liquor stores in the United States use e-commerce to run their businesses. For stores that want to bring their shelves online and reach new customers, Provance recommended retailers cover presence on both marketplaces like Drizly and their own website or app. 

Providing Excellent Customer Service, Outside the Store

With fewer customers in-store and the majority of business being done online, retailers have had to find new ways to engage and communicate with customers. According to Moreno, one of the best ways to do this is social media. “I’ve noticed people messaging us [on social media] ahead of time, making sure our hours are correct. You never know how the state or city will change things, so it’s important to make sure hours are on our social media pages,” he said. “In the end, customers just want to feel like they’re special, like they’re the only person you’re talking to. If I’m answering, I address myself as the owner. That makes them feel a little bit more important. We need to really make sure they’re getting the attention they deserve, even if they’re not in the business itself.”

Also speaking on the top retailer’s panel, Brandi Pollock, president of Fisher’s Liquor Barn in Grand Junction, CO, said the store has tasked its in-house marketing team with answering messages on social media in a timely manner. At Gary’s, Fisch created a customer success team, after seeing calls spike immensely during the pandemic. “We’re able to provide more real-time information to our guests much quicker, and solve problems much quicker,” he said.

Douglas has been using an app called OwnerListens, which enables customers to text the store and get real-time answers. “It’s brought back the Urban Grape service of having a dialogue with our customers,” he said. 

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Managing Staff in the New Normal

The continued reduction of in-store shopping means that the job description of many alcohol retail employees has changed drastically and that they’re facing unprecedented challenges. “We’ve had a lot of issues trying to keep everyone on the same page and trained the way I’d like them to be trained,” Pollock admitted.

To keep things running smoothly, Fisch said that communication is essential. “During the heart of the battle, we went right to the people — the GM or whoever was fulfilling orders on the floor,” he said. “Make sure that you’re communicating with everyone around you. Everyone is going through something and the more you can communicate with them, the better it is.” 

Moreno could see his employees burning out over long shifts of packing cold doors and orders, so he hired additional help and cut hours. “Every day is so busy now, it’s like the holidays all year round. We’re all working overtime, working really hard to make sure customers are being taken care of,” he said. Since the change, “productivity increased, employees are coming in more energized” Moreno said. 

Standing Out With Niche Products  

Stocking niche, hard-to-find products are one-way retailers can set themselves apart from the competition. “People are more willing to purchase at a higher price point because they’re interested in niche products,” said Moreno, citing craft beer, obscure whiskeys, armagnac, and single-barrel whiskies as examples. His customers know that he often handpicks tequilas in Mexico or creates his own blends. “They love to know you’re doing something unique. Customers want to go to your shop because you have things they can’t get anywhere else.”

“I think over the years, customers have become more educated,” added Douglas. “[They’re] more educated, less intimidated. A lot of people, especially in that 21 to 50 age range, the blinders can come off and they’re always willing to try something. I think it’s a really fun time to sell and I think there are more products out there that are interesting.”

Maximizing the At-Home Cocktail Trend

At-home cocktail making has seen a surge in 2020 and throughout the pandemic. In a BARC session titled “Consumer Cocktail Trends,” Daniel Warlow, a Campari Group brand ambassador, presented tips for how retailers can benefit from the trend. 

“When Aperol and Prosecco are displayed together it results in a 118 percent sales increase in dollars. When people are trying to grab-and-go and leave as quickly as possible, it’s really important to set up your displays and cross-merchandize,” said Warlow, who suggested creating Aperol Spritz kits and setting them up in the cold box. He also recommended having the right cocktail making equipment on sale at the store to assist consumers with proper stirring, straining, and measuring. 

Moreover, education is key to helping consumers make the perfect drink at home, ensuring that they will return for more supplies. The Aperol Spritz, for example, has a 75 percent conversion rate, meaning that 75 percent of the time that someone tries an Aperol Spritz they will purchase. To keep their conversion rate high, Campari has created an easy, step-by-step method to making the perfect Aperol Spritz. 

According to Warlow, consumers make several common mistakes that can poorly impact the taste of the cocktails, like not adding enough ice, using too many oranges, or having unbalanced ingredients. “The way that you make it and the exact lineup of how you put things into the glass is really important,” he said. Retailers should consider including recipes with cocktail kits and can reach out to Campari for the educational and marketing materials they’ve created for the Aperol Spritz, in addition to cold box containers.