The retail tier of the beverage alcohol industry has never been as essential to consumers as it is under the cloud of Covid-19. With the deadly virus spreading, closing bars and restaurants and severely limiting everyday life, retailers are under increasing pressure to quickly implement strategies to keep the supply chain moving while keeping their employees and customers safe. Many retailers have been forced to reduce operating hours and focus on online sales, as well as curbside pick-up and delivery options. “We’re putting together a number of survival packages at various price points and distributing those through local condominium association concierges and reaching out to folks who live in the neighborhood,” says Peter Granoff, master sommelier and owner of San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant & Wine Bar and owner-partner of both Mission Bay Wine & Cheese—also in San Francisco—and the Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa.
Retailers need efficient online ordering platforms, delivery capabilities, and determined staff members who are ready to handle the heightened labor demands called for during the pandemic. In Wappingers Falls, New York, Viscount Wines & Liquor has 15-25 employees working ten hours a day collecting online orders for curbside pickup. One online order can involve anywhere from six to eight employees as orders are taken, printed, collected, confirmed via email, and delivered to a customer’s car. “Staffing is more intense now than it is around Christmas,” says Matthew Landolt, manager at Viscount, which went exclusively to online ordering and curbside pickup March 23. “They are working harder than they’ve ever had to work.”
Landolt estimated that between March 12 and March 19, 13,000 customers circulated through Viscount. That was ultimately the catalyst to temporarily halt foot traffic.
“People were going crazy buying,” he says. “We were seeing many orders in the neighborhood of $300-$500. A typical Saturday is probably 1,000 orders. Right now we’re getting close to that number almost every day.”
Elsewhere, retailers have expanded delivery operations and are keeping a close eye on inventories. “Our business has increased, but in times of crisis, people go for familiarity,” says Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, whose delivery radius increased from 6 miles to 10 miles. “We’re selling a lot of 30-packs of beer, boxed wines, and 1.75-liters of vodka and rum. Ketel One ($32 a 1.75-liter) has been flying. Tito’s ($23) is still the leader. We’re still running sales but we cut back on some because we aren’t sure what we’ll have in stock two weeks from now.”
Maloney, who’s also president of the Massachusetts Package Stores Owner Association, notes that while sales are up, it’s primarily low profit margin offerings. “In many ways, it’s not like normal busy seasons,” he says. “Increased volume is up, but the Christmas thing is a misnomer. It has increased a lot for this time of year, but all those items are low profit items.”
At The Wine House in Los Angeles, California, owner Glenn Knight anticipated a business slow down from the previous week but was wrong. “We did get some great deals from local suppliers that helped push a lot of wine out on email blasts,” he says. “The deals were 25% to 40% off our retail price.”
Normally priced at $30 a 750-ml., the 2016 Chalone Winery Estate Pinot Noir retailed at $12 a 750-ml., and all 70 9-liter cases sold within one hour. Other deals offered at The Wine House included the 2017 Beringer Vineyards Chardonnay Private Reserve Napa Valley ($30 a 750-ml., normally $40), 2015 Fattoria del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($13 marked down from $20), 2014 Cobblestone Te Muna Pinot Noir Martinborough ($12 marked down from $25), and 2014 Chanin Pinot Noir La Riconada Sta. Rita Hills ($30 marked down from $60).
In Fishkill, New York, Paige Flori, owner of Boutique Wines & Spirits, says that most of her customers are choosing more everyday products in terms of price point. “We’re doing best in the $10-$25 wine category,” she says. “There are fewer gifts and special occasions happening so there’s less demand for higher end products in the wine category. In whiskey, we’re still seeing demand for more expensive products, including inquiries about allocated items.”
Each of Granoff’s three stores, meanwhile, offers several different “survival kits” combining wine and food. The Ferry Plaza and Oxbow stores are offering a sparkling wine kit, including three bottles of French sparklers, with a retail value of $124, for $105: NV Domaine Champalou Vouvray Brut ($26); NV Deboilt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs ($50); and Louis Nicalse Brut rosé ($48). Customers can also customize their personal kit of six, eight, or 12 bottles of wine. “It’s structured in way that allows for us to be flexible about what actually goes in the packages, because we’re at the point now where some suppliers are not re-supplying,” Granoff says.
In Fishkill, Flori is preparing to unveil an “Adult Easter Bunny” delivery. “We’ll offer a choice of pre-made basket of wine, cider, canned cocktails, or airplane nips in the spirit of the spring holidays,” she says.