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Tuesday Trials and Tribulations
Whither The Forlorn Retailer

By Stephen Eliot

An short piece in the Wall Street Journal Market Watch yesterday addressed a question I have been thinking about for some time, that of just where the retail wine business might be headed. Led by the question of “could liquor stores go the way of bookstores,” the article suggested that, as has been the case with many large retailers ranging from Best Buy to Barnes & Noble, the practice of browsing in store then ordering online at some discounted price might be the way of the wine business before long.

Now, I cannot say that I am worried to the point of sleeplessness about the imminent destruction of the brick-and-mortar wine trade, but there are assuredly changes coming in the way that business is being done, and it would be bad business to pretend there were not. It may true, as the article notes, that direct-to-consumer shipments of wine increased by 12% over the last twelve months, but, what is not mentioned is that off-premise sales managed to climb 7% as well.

The ability to order online is a reality that must be faced, but wine is expensive to ship and does not like to be mishandled, as I am sure a great deal of it must be. Online purchasing makes a good deal of sense for wine lovers who do not have reliable, well-stocked retailers close at hand, but there remain many incentives for the interested wine buyer to visit their local wine merchant. Moreover, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more useful to budding wine lovers and old hands alike than a comfortable, one-on-one relationship with a well-versed retailer who is willing to actually get know you and your tastes. No smart-phone wine-advice app will ever replace them.

Still, there are changes on the retail front. One significant trend, it seems to me, has been the increasing difficulty in finding many of the best California bottlings at the corner wine store. Once upon on time, wineries needed retailers, now it appears that many domestic producers do not. I have been surprised of late in conversations with countless winemakers at just how much of their production is sold direct, and there is no question but that more than a few of CGCW’s most highly rated wines often do not see retailers’ shelves. I do not know that it is necessarily a bad thing; it is most certainly a boon to the wineries, but it is a new reality in how the fine-wine market works, and it means that passionate collectors may, in some cases, need to look beyond their local store. It may well be that over time imports claim a larger retail presence as more and more of those wineries that can successfully sell direct find it in their best financial interest to do so.

That said, I find it hard to believe that knowledgeable, conscientious retailers are on the road to extinction. They are a noble bunch and will always have an audience. I also expect that the big-box discounters will be up to the task of meeting any online challenge, and, if some may fade away, others will take their places. I might be wrong; online purchasing might become dominant. The wine trade will evolve as it has in the past, but the one certainty is that satisfied consumers whose needs are met will ultimately be the arbiters of success.


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Totally Agree...
by TomHill
Posted on:8/20/2013 10:32:10 AM


   Couldn't agree more with your thesis, Steve. Knowledgeable/informative retailers will always be with us and are nowhere near extinction. Alas, what passes for wine retailing anymore, especially in the big box stores, is simply the posting of sheld-talkers. Double alas, is the failure of many customers to place their trust in said wine merchant and cultivate that kind of relationship you describe.

   When I go into a new wine shop that appears to have an interesting selection, I will often ask the person "What do you recommend that's a particularly good value". I've found some incredible wines that way.

   DarrellCorti is pprobably the best I've seen in developing those relationships. He frequently knows his customers tastes and steers them to some new wine. In fact, when I gone into CortiBros, Darrell will immediately jump up, pull me out a shopping cart, station me at the steering bar, and then leads me up & down the aisles. "Here, Tom, you MUST try this", places the btl in my shopping cart, gives mme a few minutes lecture on said wine, and then goes on to the next one. Before I know it, I'm up to two or more cases. I'll oftentimes have to surepitiously slip a btl or two back onto the shelves. Finally, I'll have to plead "no mas" with him. Ole Darrell has me right where he wants me!!!



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