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In Good Taste

Posted on  | October 1, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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TJ Douglas pouring at The Urban Grape

Try before you buy is not a new selling technique—it’s been used for everything from magazine subscriptions to cereal to cars, because people are naturally more likely to make a purchase if they experience something firsthand. Our industry is especially keen on sampling. But are you leveraging these opportunities to connect with your customers in a more meaningful way? Paying attention to some basic principles can make sure you maximize sales and other benefits.*

Different Strokes for Different Stores

Sampling events are an extension of your store identity, so what works for one business may not for another. Space, store traffic patterns and who’s pouring are all important variables, but the first consideration is what tastings you choose to stage. Are you known for your approachable wine choices? For European expertise? Or maybe for fun wines, or local craft spirits? By focusing on these themes for in-store events, you to maintain consistency in your marketing message and project a sense of expertise.

It’s a rare store that does all of its own tastings with no outside vendors, so partnering with ones you trust is key. You’re likely approached weekly by salespeople or agencies about booking a tasting. For TJ and Hadley Douglas, owners of The Urban Grape, with two locations in Boston’s South End and Chestnut Hill, tasting companies are off limits. “They know the facts, but don’t bring excitement to the products,” says TJ. “We need someone in the store that brings the passion, not just looks at this as a paycheck.” They’ve had the best success with local distillers and brewers as well as winemakers, all of whom can tell the story of their products, even signing bottles. “This turns the purchase into an event, tied to a memory that you can relive when you finally crack open that bottle to drink,” he adds.  

The Marketing Mix

On the other hand, winemakers are not going to work every store in a market. Plus, often the launch of a new product can push dozens of tastings out in a single market as part of a national launch supported by a big marketing spend. Agencies are often utilized for these types of programs, but tastings should be approached actively, not passively, by agencies and retailers alike.

Mike Ginley, a partner in Next Level Marketing, a well-known brand activation agency in the industry, notes that a successful promotion program requires a strong partnership: “This involves things like the location for the event in the store, ensuring that the store has ordered enough product before the event, allowing the brand to train the store staff on the product and announcing the event in advance to help drive traffic.”

What happens in-store, the day of a tasting, should be part of a bigger plan, notes Jeremy Benson from Benson Marketing, which has executed in-store sampling programs for French regional wine clients Languedoc and Loire Valley. A month-long “L’Aventure Languedoc” promotion, now in its third year across three cities, boosted sales by double-digits in targeted markets, but he emphasizes that retail tastings were one important component in a comprehensive social media, public relations and advertising campaign. “We can leverage each of those tools to produce better results for our retail partners, as well as our clients,” Benson says. “It creates a sales platform that allows everyone to win, including consumers looking for new wine discoveries at their favorite retailer.”

And let’s not forget location. The best place to hold a tasting is right in the front of the store so it’s the first thing people see as they walk in, according to Jim Oremland, North East regional coordinator for Flow Wine Group, which has staged and staffed hundreds of retail tastings across the country. “I once had a store owner place me in the back of the store, with my presented wines on a cleared-off shelf,” Oremland recalls. “When I suggested the tasting would be much more successful in the front of the store, he insisted that I stand up front and lead people to the back of the store to offer them a free taste. Needless to say, we didn’t sell very much wine that day.”

And while it may seem like a good idea to have several vendors sampling at once, it can dilute the overall sales success. In some cases, holding a large themed event on a weekend with multiple brands represented can work well, but only as a well-promoted special occasion. Kappy’s Liquors in Peabody, MA, holds annual events like “Taste of New England,” bringing together regional producers. The synergy of similar samplings is what makes events like that work.

Setting the Stage for Success

It goes without saying, but bears repeating: Book tastings when your natural foot traffic is at its peak. Typically, Thursday and Friday evenings are ideal as people are stopping by after work to grab a bottle for dinner or a party. But they’re often in more of a rush, so simple samplings are most effective. Save unique products that may require more of an explanation for Saturdays, when customers are more likely to linger.

Advance planning, including promotion, is critical. The Urban Grape takes an aggressive, multi-channel approach. “There will always be people who stumble upon a tasting, but we promote our tastings endlessly and in many different ways,” says TJ Douglas. “All of our tastings are on our website, announced via our newsletter, on signage in our store windows, and promoted via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You’ve got to make people care, and get them excited to make time to stop by.”

Misaki Reinoso, assistant wine buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City, cites not only diligent promotion but also timing as a factor in achieving exceptional turnout. “Event-tied-in tastings are a great example,” she says. “Combining with book signings, classes, or private tastings brings an extra traffic in the store.”

Not every store is as fortunate as Astor, which has an attached event center, but across the country, retail stores are building special rooms just for classes and events, and using education as a draw. Pearl Wine Company in New Orleans might be considered even more fortunate—they have a wine bar adjacent to the store. But owner Leora Pearl Madden believes that the sampling situation itself is paramount. “It’s important to have retail tasting at the same time each week,” she says. “And always make them quality tasting.” The public is quick to perceive an in-store tasting as “reputable or a waste of time,” she asserts.

At Corx Wine & Liquors, which opened in late 2012 in White Plains, NY, owner Todd Kosakowski purposefully designed the store to account for tastings. Ample yet flexible counter and floor space enable Corx not only to stage frequent samplings, but also to accommodate local groups for in-store events, such as fundraisers. In addition, a Napa Technology WineStation lets staff pour tastes of eight wines at any time. One recent standout was Deadbolt: After putting the easy-drinking red blend in the WineStation, Corx sold three cases in one week based on the pure power of sampling.
The person conducting the tasting can make or break the sale and affect the overall customer experience in your store. “The sampling team conducting the promotion must reflect the personality of the brand, be well trained on the brand, be outgoing and engaging with the consumers and conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times,” explains Next Level Marketing’s Ginley.   

Oremland from Flow puts the emphasis on genuine wine knowledge: “To join our staff, the prospective consultant must be able to discuss regions, varietals and the effect of region on wines. Without this basic knowledge, the consultant will need to rely on facts and figures provided by the winery, which are neither interesting nor conducive to making sales.”

Measuring Success

How many bottles sold make a tasting successful? It depends on a few factors. “The retail price point relative to average category pricing greatly impacts bottle sales per event—a $10 wine will sell more than a $50 spirit,” says Ginley. At Astor, Reinoso sees wines between $10 and $20 a bottle faring best at tastings. She says expensive items and obscure grapes or countries are always a hard sell.

Naturally sales success will depend on foot traffic, and can get a boost from a price discount available during the tasting. Ginley cites a 25% conversion rate as an average goal when looking at the amount of consumers who taste and then buy. He adds that spirits samplings can be more complex. “The amount of product and category information that consumers want varies greatly by spirit type and price point,” Ginley says. “And spirit tastings require a drink strategy on whether to taste the product neat, with a simple mixer or in a signature cocktail.”

The Hadleys have a different outlook: “Sometimes exceptional tastings can be measured in sales, and sometimes they can be measured in how well the brand has been represented and exposed to the market. We take a really long term outlook to our tasting program. Someone tasting a $300 bottle of tequila may only sell one in two hours, but 50 people might taste the tequila, love it and come back for it over the course of a year. That might not be considered a success that night, but long term, it’s a home run.”  

What a Successful Sampling Looks Like:

Scheduled during peak hours of natural food traffic, ideally Friday or Saturday. Not in conjunction with another tasting, regardless if they are different categories. In this business, it’s all about share of stomach.

Promoted at least one week in advance via in-store signage, social media, website and newsletters. Some stores use localwineevents.com and eventbrite.com as well, even for free tastings. Suppliers and distributors can also spread the word via their networks.

Confirmed a few days in advance, between the retailer and the sampler, in terms of product inventory, event expectations and practical execution (table, cloth, ice, cups, dump buckets, trash, etc.) Never assume.

Staffed by a knowledgeable professional who is passionate about the brand and knows how to effectively engage customers.

Set up at the front of the store in a highly visible area where there is good flow (no bottlenecks at the door or registers).


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