Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

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Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Ross » Mon May 08, 2006 1:56 pm

Jancis was very complimentary about our responses to her question about good US retailers, and has forwarded the following question to me for our best responses. Can a large wine store gain the respect of wine geeks, and if so how?

Many thanks, Bob

Do you have an issue with large format wine retailers?

I work for a large wine retail company in the US and feel that we really get a raw deal when it comes to attracting 'serious' wine buyers. Is this all down to image, or is there really an issue with the way large retailers do business? I know we sell some exceptional wines, as well as those mass-market commercial wines and get so frustrated when we don't get taken seriously.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Rahsaan » Mon May 08, 2006 2:53 pm

For me part of the issue with these stores is the lack of knowledge of the staff. Often they will just be paid to carry around bottles and not have much technical knowledge about wine, but even if they do know wine it is hard for them to be aware about everything in such a huge shop.

I think many wine geeks enjoy chatting about wine (obviously!) and that is part of the purchasing process. Partially for fun, but also because it's helpful, and even if I'm aware of a particular wine I may not know how its drinking right now, or how successful it was in a particular vintage, which is where the wine shop staff really add value in my opinion. And, that is why I like to patronize shops where the staff are very up to date in their knowledge of their selection. Not to mention that when you build these relationships over time they can know your palate and give you even more informed service.

All of which is difficult to get in a huge retailer.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Jenise » Mon May 08, 2006 3:00 pm

If "large format" means 'chain', then about the only one I'm familiar with is Beverages & More. They opened a store in my former home town where we didn't have any other wine-only retailers, so I was favorably disposed until I got inside and realized that there was no A-list merchandise. Oh sure, some good brands were there, but there was zippo at the geek level in terms of quality, rarity or newness. If by any chance there were exceptions, then the goods were off vintages or lesser bottlings.

Then, dealing with BevMo online once after I moved to Washington when I was collecting wine for a Ridge zin tasting was similarly unsatisfactory--when they didn't have the vintage I ordered, they sent another and when I called to complain, they didn't seem to comprehend why they shouldn't have and why I was irate. Wouldn't have happened with any of the independent, professional wine retailers I frequently buy from. It was like shopping at Sears.
Last edited by Jenise on Mon May 08, 2006 4:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby MichaelJ » Mon May 08, 2006 3:19 pm

Part of the buying process for me is the forming of relationships. This is more difficult to do with the larger format stores. I give about 90% of my business to one local retailer. They know me and my tastes. If they get something that I might like, they'll tell me about it. If I would like to taste a particular wine, I don't hesitate asking.

Note that I like to take the "forming relationships" tactic across the board, not just with wine. Buying cheese, meat, or produce is the same.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Dale Williams » Mon May 08, 2006 3:21 pm

I certainly don't disrespect large retailers, I shop at Zachys regularly and am staring at a delivery from Sherry-Lehmann right now.

But, if you mean chain stores as Jenise suggests, I have to admit my experiences (limited, as chains aren't legal in NY) aren't particularly positive. For a few reasons:
1) limited selection of wines that get geek interest. Most seem to have huge stacks of the most industrial products, but not much interesting (to me). This isn't to do with price- most seem to have some "bling" wines to impress- Silver Oak, Opus One, the odd (offvintage) Bdx 1st, some Burgundy Grand Crus (usually from Laboure-Roi). But I'd much rather see some carefully selected smaller makers.
2) Storage. I've walked into some of the Total chain and they were HOT during summer.
3) Staff doesn't seem interested in wine, as Rahsaan says.

I'll try any store once. But when I walk into a warm store with stacks of Barton & Guestier Bordeaux and a staff that looks blank if you ask if they have any Loires, it's quick exit time!
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Hoke » Mon May 08, 2006 3:31 pm

Where to begin???

Hving been, for a long time, a buyer for one of those large retail chains, and then involved with a fine wine independent store operation, the restaurant biz, the wholesale side of things, and now the big supplier/importer/vineyard owner side as well, I have some thoughts.

The weaknesses of the "one size fits all" approach that the chain retailers use is their weakness. Dedicated wine geeks want a full selection that suits them (apropos Jenise's comments just now) and they are disappointed when they get neither the selection they want nor the attention/level of response that they feel they deserve. Yet the fact of the matter is that the wine geek is pretty much the least important person---monetarily and profit-wise--of any customer that walks in the door.

If it is a true full service beverage store, then we're talking spirits, beer, non-alcoholic beverages, sundries, snack foods, possibly gourment foods/cheeses, cigarettes, and the proliferation of wine brands, from synthetic 'pop' wines to the boxes to the mega-jugs to the 'fighting varietals' to the fine wines.

Add to that the incredible explosion of brands in wine for the last several years, and you've got a situation where they centralized owner/manager has to look at what's best for the overall store. And when it comes to fine wines, huge investments are required, with usuall slow returns---because there are more drinkers of casual wines, everyday wines, value wines, than there ever will be in the fine wine segment. So inventories are kept lean, slow movers are weeded out, the ideal shelf spaces go to those wines that are supported, advertised, promoted, discounted and put on the quota system for the salesperson (at whatever level).

All that means that when the wine geek comes in, they get little attention. And when the profit monster raises its head, little things like customer service and response go by the wayside. It takes TIME and MANPOWER (often the highest paid manpower too) to seek and find the best wines, and it takes money to buy them...when most of the wine geeks want one bottle of something esoteric, which doesn't generate any return (except in good will, and you can't put good will in your bank ledger at the end of the workday, or find it on the profit sheet). It's easier, frankly, from the owner's point of view, to send that customer to some other store...on paper, anyway.

And, let's talk truth here: I've seen so many times where a store would bend over backwards to do all the things necessary to satisfy a wine geek customer---then lose that customer to another store on the other side of town that offered a wine at a slightly greater discount. Any retailer will tell you the same too.

What the chains work on is location, convenience, efficiency, cost control, and offering the widest range of products possible at any given time. Some of the managers are enlightened enough to realize that it is in their best interests to keep the truly fine wines in stock....but then they are stymied by their own wholesaler suppliers and the wineries themselves!

Take Ridge for interest: as a chain buyer, I might well be able to get the current release of the basic level Ridge wines. Might even be able to get a few meager bottles of some of the best Ridge wines. But it wouldn't be easy, because the fact is that Ridge and their wholesalers exert lots of control over where their product goes, and when their product is in demand, they don't WANT it in the mega-chains, because they prefer to send it to the more profitable fine wine purveyors and restaurants (drives the price of the wine up, and thus the profit and prestige of the winery).

So even if I wanted the product, and was willing to invest in it, I likely couldn't get it. If I could, it would be in such small amounts that I'd have to put in a few select better stores where there's clientele for it.

Another case in point to illustrate the problem: when the wine mixed with fruit juice fad started (Arbor Mist, Wild Vines, etc.), or before that, the wine coolers craze, the big retailers were forced by created customer demand to devote huge amounts of floor, shelf, and inventory space, along with diverting dollars to purchase, for those products, simply because the suppliers had invested tons of money to promote the sales. That space, and those dolllars, have to come from somewhere, and the inexorability of economics says it has to come from the section that generates the lowest return...and that is usually fine wine.

What can the big retailers do to earn respect? No secrets there. Hire good knowlegeable people (and pay them a decent wage so they stay around or are incentified to learn their trade), allow them the time they need to build up the right inventory and to schmooze the customers on the floor---because as others have said, one of the things wine geek customers need is someone to either talk to or talk at about this obsession they have. Then they have to build their customer base over a long period of time. It can happen...but often doesn't because their is always the head accountant showing the ledger to the manager. That's why the fine wine game often falls to the independent, who is in it as much for love as for money. Or in any case, more love than the big chain retailers feel.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Rahsaan » Mon May 08, 2006 3:36 pm

What can the big retailers do to earn respect?


You make fine points, they don't need respect, they have profit.

Another issue would be real estate wouldn't it? As the larger companies can afford better real estate which puts them in the way of more foot (or car) traffic.

Unless they're lucky like Paul Marcus wines.

But then is Astor a large or independent retailer?
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby MichaelJ » Mon May 08, 2006 3:40 pm

I also want to point out that it is not impossible to pull off. We may need to define what "large format" means (i.e., a chain?). I think in Chicago both Sam's and Binnies are successful at this. They are cetainly large stores with many locations, but as a geek, I am very happy shopping at either place.
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Postby Ed Draves » Mon May 08, 2006 3:58 pm

Speaking as a large retailer, we get plenty of respect. Yes we put out a lot of jug and box wine as well as a lot of "advertised" California wines but we have a large staff and many passionate wine people who keep our selection interesting and diverse. I have strong relationships with many customers and do not see size as a problem. I think many other large retailers could post the identical thing.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Hoke » Mon May 08, 2006 3:58 pm

Rahssan and Michael:

Yes, some definition of term would be approrpriate. You can be both large AND independent, after all.

Sam's in Chicago was essentially a mega-wine store in a warehouse (literally), with almost no overhead and a fantastic selection of wines, with great people, and the willingness to develop customer service to the highest levels.

Centennial and Sigel's are two large multi-unit chains in the Dallas area that (at various time in their long histories) have been exceptional fine wine purveyors and all things to all people at the same time. Depends on the managment/ownership and their vision, really.

Hey, there's any number of single-store independents that are about as bad as they come, right? And some chains that do it right. So it's difficult to generalize.

One of the finest wine palates I've ever had the pleasure of knowing labored for years in the biz, then invested everything he owned into a small fine wine shop. His dream was to have an English "bespoke" type of shop, dealing in only the finest of wines and the most discriminating of clientele. Sadly, a discount wine shop opened up down the street, and several chains opened up in the area. And all those discriminating clientele he had so assiduously developed over the years? They were happy to go to his shop for the free tastings and the education----then they'd go to the chain and discount stores to buy! So his dream, his passion, came to naught, because he couldn't pay his bills. He is now working for a volume winery, and pays his bills.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Mark Lipton » Mon May 08, 2006 4:00 pm

MichaelJ wrote:I also want to point out that it is not impossible to pull off. We may need to define what "large format" means (i.e., a chain?). I think in Chicago both Sam's and Binnies are successful at this. They are cetainly large stores with many locations, but as a geek, I am very happy shopping at either place.


Perzackly my thought. I've rarely (if ever) seen a larger retailer than Sam's, yet they have some fine wines for sale and a knowledgable staff. And I know for a fact that they made Jancis's list, so what's the beef?

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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Robin Garr » Mon May 08, 2006 6:08 pm

Bob Ross wrote:Do you have an issue with large format wine retailers?


Bob, this question has already grown an impressive thread before I come to it, and I think most of the points I would make have already been touched on.

I'd agree, though, with those who say a more precise definition of "large format wine retailer" is needed. The old Party Source stores in Louisville, and the remaining operation in Northern Kentucky (Cincinnati region) is a great wine shop by any standard, and its quality shows in a careful selection of wines and a priority on retaining competent, highly qualified wine staff and having them available on the sales floor at all times.

This is not a small commitment, and larger stores - corporate chains in particular - are rarely willing to make it; it requires a commitment to the long haul and not just the quarterly balance sheet.

But it can be done, and it has been done, at Party Source and, as has been noted, at the Chicago mega-stores and others.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby James Roscoe » Mon May 08, 2006 7:16 pm

My own experience with these kind of BAW stores include the numerous Total Wine Stores in Delaware and Virginia as well as their sister store in Maryland, Corridor. I have few complaints. The staff at these store has been knowledgable. I frequent Corridor often enough to get the kind of service you find in smaller stores. I am always apprised when shipments of small stock champagnes will be coming in to get the beat on the hoi polloi. With the exception of the Holiday Season, I am able to talk to the staff to my heart's delight. The prices are right. Having said that, many of the criticisms of the large BAW format are right on and I frequently hit Calvert-Woodley or Ironbridge if I have time or there is a sale.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Ross » Mon May 08, 2006 7:46 pm

Thank you all for some really great answers. I've written a short summary, quote most of the posts, and sent it off to Robinson. I'll be out of action for a day or so, and wanted to get this off my desk before leaving.

If others chime in, I'll send them on to Jancis on my return.

Many thanks for all the help.

Regards, Bob
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Henrick » Mon May 08, 2006 8:03 pm

Bob, far too often big retailers in a small market such as Lexington, treat the customer as if they are a bother. In effect they say this is what we have, buy it! I am of course not painting all the employees with the same tar brush, but most employees know from nothing about wines, or beers if it is not Bud Light. Funny though they all seem to know the single barrel whiskies.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Ross » Mon May 08, 2006 8:11 pm

Thanks, Bob ... I got your answer in under the wire. :-)

Regards, Bob
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Thomas » Mon May 08, 2006 9:17 pm

There is one thing in the equation that has not been addressed. The fact that "geeks" make up between 5 and 10 % of wine sales, and usually it is a certain segmant of wines.

If you are running a large (whatever the definition of large is) retail wine shop you cannot rely on that small percentage of consumers for your living, especially when that small percentage is fickle enough to move to another retailer to save a dollar on a bottle, and will "out" you on a bulletin board if you do not live up to their stringent, sometimes ridiculous, standards.

I think that if hobbyists were served by hobby shops and wine buyers were served by wine shops the question would have a different answer.

Caveat: It always goes without saying (in my view) that any retailer--be it wine or socks--employ knowledgeable people, or train them.

Caveat 2: generalizations such as large vs. small retail shops are about as valid as any other generalization.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Covert » Tue May 09, 2006 10:09 pm

Two types: first, Zachy's and Sherry Lehmann types, which Dale mentioned, are positioned to have what serious wine buyers want, so these types of customers from all over the States go there via email-order. These stores are highly respected by geeks - except those in the more traditional sense that eschew any form of normal institution.

Then big local stores and chains which sell to the 95%, or whatever, of gulpers and what-wine-should-I-buy-for-a-special-occasion? (who then return what was recommended because it was earthy or had an aftertaste) crowds . These stores garner little respect from serious wine buyers.

I try to frequent the boutiques, where I can have wonderful conversations with the owners, but once I buy their three or four bottles that I can't get at Zachy's or Sherry-Lehmann, I don't go back.

Special outlets for estate wine purchases (thanks Dale) are another story. They are sort of a godsend if you don't have the stomach to bid at auctions only to get your heart set on an old wine that someone else outbids you for.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Suzie Q » Tue May 09, 2006 11:04 pm

I have to thank all of you for your wonderful responses. I am the person who originally posed the question to Jancis.

I work for Total Wine as a Wine Manager. I have been in wine retailing for 16 years, have completed 3 WSET courses and feel fairly qualified to do my job. I also write the wine column for my local newspaper.

My question came out of frustration because I believe that it is often assumed that my colleagues and I lack knowledge. Obviously while I cannot speak for all employees of large chains, this is so often not the case.

I guess I really just want to ask people to keep an open mind. I can assure you that my store is never warm. While some of the conditions are less than ideal, I believe I do a good job of presenting my customers with an exceptional choice of wines in a knowledgeable and friendly manner.

Again, thank you for all the responses. I look forward to conversing with many of you.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Henrick » Tue May 09, 2006 11:23 pm

Suzie, we look forward to talking wine with you too. I am one who said that in my town the big wine store leaves a lot to be desired. I do not know how many times I have sold wine for the store, because a customer had a quizzical look on his or her face and was relieved when I asked if I could help them find ssomething. The staff (execpt for a few) do not do that. The worst offense though is when the staff that knows from nothing tries to BS their way through to a sale. IMO that is unnecessary...all it takes is for the store to train their staff.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Ross » Wed May 10, 2006 1:23 am

Thanks for chiming in Suzie. I live in Franklin Lakes, and will be glad to stop by your outlet at 135 Kinderkamack Road, River Edge, NJ.

We were giving general comments, of course, but are always happier discussing specific wines, stores and other wine related issues.

I'll post my general reactions after giving that outlet a chance.

Regards, Bob
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Wed May 10, 2006 7:38 am

I echo the good comments from our friend BobH. I hang out at a local wine store quite a bit and most of the staff are quite knowledgable. Later in the evening, I have been known to help clients not too sure of a wine selection, after all the experienced staff have signed off. Its a lot of fun!! The other evening a lady was in from Ontario, new to the city and new to wine. After finding out her preferred taste in wine, I thought "what the heck, promote BC". I also mentioned my connection to Rics Grill up the street!! Another happy customer, I hope.

Suzie Q...good luck and welcome to the forum.
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Re: Large retailers get no respect -- why asks Jancis Robinson.

Postby Suzie Q » Thu May 11, 2006 2:09 am

Thanks go to BobnBobnBob....

I'm a transplant here, having been born and raised in Blighty.

It's good to know that there are people with open minds.

I do understand the issues many people have had with the chains, I just hope that y'all won't tar all of us with the same brush.
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