Posted on | July 22, 2013
Written by | W.R. Tish
People are creatures of habit. People are naturally curious. At the intersection of these seemingly opposed truisms lies an ongoing challenge—and opportunity—for bricks-and-mortar wine merchants. Faced with customers of diverse interests and levels experience, the wine retailer’s aim is to help every person who walks in the store walk out with something that will please them enough to come back. Again and again.
Let’s face it: The wine world is still a mighty complex place for many wine drinkers—even ones who have a sense of what they like. While some consumers settle into narrow comfort zones, others are open to flexibility, if not outright adventure. Determining that degree of flexibility can be tricky, but in the Digital Age—where searching for products and pricing is a few clicks away—that interaction is ever more vital to building return business.
Being able to cross-sell shoppers is the bricks-and-mortar advantage; you are in a position to demonstrate how your store, no matter what size, is a microcosm of the gigantic, unwieldy wine universe. And within your manageable slice of that universe, there are multiple ways to make shoppers happy within their respective comfort zones.
I spoke to several retailers about this topic recently, focusing on a few specific types of wines for consistency, and came away impressed on several levels. Their interest in discussing cross-selling was instantaneous and enthusiastic—clearly a favorite part of the business is turning people on to new wines. At the same time, they realize that making suggestions always harbors a bit of risk, so their ability to cross-sell successfully depends as much on being a good listener as on being a wine know-it-all.
Peter D’Amico, manager and wine buyer for two Wine Discount Centers in Chicago, is always cognizant that when suggesting wines, there are usually a couple of directions to go. “One way is to stay in the country (or larger region) and suggest within the same profile,” he notes. “The other way is to listen, figure out what they are really saying they like, and go with something a bit ‘off the wall.’”
For Pinot Grigio, he says, “We mostly we stay in Italy, but try to move them to other crisp varietals with more character. A recent example is Favorita from Langhe that features crisp fruit, subtle minerals and racy acidity.” He adds that Italy has also been a go-to for people wanting to explore a new wine with Pinot Noir-like character: “Dolcetto for the fruitier side, Nerello Mascalese for the
more secondary characteristics.”
For bigger reds, many people habitually turn to Cabernet, but D’Amico enjoys recommending Spanish reds under $20: “Spain is producing ridiculous value for big wine fans. Garnacha and Monastrell in particular lend to big flavors without big price tags. There are also so many California red blends that are reasonable and have many Cab-ish characteristics, too.”
It’s About the Conversation
In Coral Gables, FL, proprietor Jeffrey Wolfe of Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe, has tailored his store to encourage conversation. “We try not to carry the big brands from around the globe, says Wolfe, “and deal with the smaller farmers and obscure varietals.” He also utilizes no point-of-sale materials.
When people walk in, he says, “We ask a few simple questions. What part of the world; white, red, rosé or bubbles; and what’s the budget. This gives people a sense of empowerment since they are usually freaked out that nothing is familiar and the only info is coming from us.”
Often, an initial exchange will provide a sense of direction. “If they have specific varietals that they are interested in,” says Wolfe, “we will show them what they ask for, but I can also ask if they want to try something ‘similarly different.’ Questions help direct the sale, using the client’s own likes and dislikes. If someone asks for Pinot Grigio, we have two Italian PGs stacked on the floor, between 11 to 18 bucks, so there is safety there. But then I can challenge them with a Pinot Gris from Alsace or even one from California that has had some skin contact.” And if the conversation veers toward food, that Pinot Grigio hunter may go home with a different Italian white, such as Ligurian Pigato or a Greco du Tufo.
Similarly, a request for Pinot Noir can turn into “Cru Beaujolais or a Sciaccarellu from Corsica,” Wolfe notes. Malbec can be a gateway to Bonarda, Priorat or Nero de Avola. Someone who walks into Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe thinking Cabernet Sauvignon may well walk out with Syrah, Garnacha, Bordeaux, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. “The best customers are the ones that develop trust with you and lose their inhibitions,” says Wolfe.
On the Bold Side
Before he bought West Side Wines in West Hartford, CT, 12 years ago, Greg Nemergut spent many years at IBM. “I brought a consumer perspective to owning a shop,” he says. “But coming from IBM, I had a laser focus on customer service.” One of his goals was to make both his physical store and website “bright, open and inviting.” That he established early on.
Another goal—superior service—is ongoing. Staff members are used to people coming in and asking “Do you have…?” And in many instances, the store does not. That is precisely where skilled cross-selling begins. “We focus on trying to identify a style the customer is looking for, and then direct them that way,” Nemergut says. “We are very food-centric as well.”
People looking for “not oaky” Chardonnay may be encouraged to try an unoaked Mâcon-Villages or Saint-Véran. Pinot Noir seekers may be steered to Cascina Ballarin’s “Cino,” a $15.99 blend of Nebbiolo (20%), Dolcetto (40%) and Barbera (40%) with generous red cherry fruit and an easy texture. Big red lovers will get turned on to Toro, Spain; Nemergut says of the $19.99 Bodegas Maurados “Prima” bottling, “I’d stake my reputation on this drinking like a $40 Cabernet.”
“We are a niche player,” says Nemergut. “We understand that.” Fittingly, their website’s home page search links include not only country, grape, type and price range, but also importer—from Vias and Dalla Terra to Terry Theise and Robert Kacher. That self-awareness, plus intimate knowledge of the carefully selected inventory, breeds confidence “Everything we carry overachieves,” Nemergut asserts. “We’re at the front lines. If anyone should know [about the wines], it’s us.”
Given that Americans’ culinary awareness, in general, is ahead of their vinous awareness, it makes sense that food can be an ideal bridge to a savvy retailer’s wine recommendation. At Pairings Portland, owner-operator Jeff Weissler, whose first stint in wine retail was on the East Coast, has tapped into Portland’s foodie-ness in a big way.
The store’s website states upfront: “We like to think of a glass of wine as one of the ingredients in your dish, and we’ll help you find the wine that makes your food sing.” And the physical store is dominated by a huge chalkboard adorned with stylistic terms and food-pairing notes relating to bottles displayed on mini-shelves.
While the store’s format is built for recommendations with food in mind, Weissler is always happy to cross-sell based on grape variety or wine style. For someone looking for Italian Pinot Grigio, he likes to suggest Soave, especially ones that are 100% Garganega, or Austrian Grüner Veltliner or Spanish Albariño.
On Pinot Noir, Weissler says, “If someone likes Pinot Noir, it depends on the price category. If they’re budget-minded, I often like to explore Mencia from Spain, and Beaujolais. In the mid and higher range it’s tricky—Pinot Noir is its own beast.” And for bigger reds with not so big price tags, he says, “I’d take folks to blends from Washington. They frequently have a little more acidity and get a little more food-friendly. Aussie Shiraz could do the trick for the lover of dark.”
Interestingly, one wine he typically does not cross-sell is Moscato d’Asti. “I can’t remember ever talking anyone out of it. I just talk folks into it as an add-on,” says Weissler, adding, “At the shop we have a fun cocktail we do that’s four parts Moscato, one part Nebbiolo Chinato. Yum!”
What emerged clearly from each of the retailers contacted for this article is the sense that cross-selling is a skill, and a tool. Recommending wines that fit a shopper’s preference is a fundamental aspect of good service. And whether it means turning them on to a new way to enjoy Moscato or exposing them to a brand new grape or region, these exchanges are vital to happy customers and repeat business.