Taster’s Choice Wine tastings that work

As an increasing number of Americans pop the cork, retailers are looking to wine tastings – either as separate events or ongoing programs – as a way to attract clients to the store and, eventually, the cash register.

At retail, the art of product sampling as an enticement to buy is an old one. But wine tastings, where a few bottles are set out as samples for customers to try, have the potential to be much more effective than sausage on a stick. These events aren’t just a way to make a fast buck on whatever you’re pushing that week: they can produce more knowledgeable, loyal customers, the kind who will regard your store as a gathering place and a resource as much as they will rely on it as a retail establishment.

Depending on your store type, wine tasting programs can be either a stylistic necessity or a nice bonus for ordinary shoppers.

At Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, California – a family-owned store with 24,000 square feet of retail space and a 3,000 square-foot temperature controlled wine cellar – it’s the former. Tastings take place three times a week in the store’s wine bar, featuring up to a dozen different wines.

“There is more of a hands-on mentality, where people really want to decide for themselves what they like and what they want to taste,” observes Dan Rhodes, Hi-Time’s French wine buyer. “There is also a growing awareness of wine matching, and that’s really good, because it gets people off the main path. A wine bar can help to introduce people to new things.”

Rhodes creates specific themes for each tasting, often by region, grape variety, or wine type. “There are a lot of different things that you can do, and the more creative you are, the more your clients appreciate it,” he advises. Tastings at Hi-Times are also seasonal: Rhodes won’t, for example, conduct a Sauvignon Blanc tasting during the middle of winter.

BLM Wine + Spirits in Boston, Massachusetts, holds tastings every Saturday. Usually featuring about nine wines, a table is arranged so that the tasting glasses are placed in front of the bottle, enabling the customer to look at and smell the wine. Roger Ormon, BLM’s wine manager, provides a sheet with a two-to-three paragraph blurb on each wine, listing grape varieties, facts about the region, how the wine is made and interesting highlights about the winemaker. A tasting coordinator behind the table focuses on how the wine tastes, but also pushes for incremental sales by talking about its relationship to food.

“They will draw people out so that they can express what they think about the wine, and what they would serve it with,” he says, adding that customers will also talk amongst themselves. “It’s very informal. Some people go through all the wines in a hurry, while other will taste one or two. Some will talk for half an hour to 45 minutes to leisurely go through all of the wines.”

Servers don’t necessarily need to possess the in-depth knowledge of a master sommelier, but they should be equipped with a number of basic facts on grape varieties, regions and background on the wineries themselves.

“The real critical component, as far as the in-store operations go, is to make sure that there are wine-knowledgeable people out there selling the product,” emphasizes Scott D. Kamp, corporate wine buyer for grocery chain Meijer, Inc, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “If someone is selling wine and they don’t understand it the way they should, you can get into trouble quickly because you lose credibility. People who really like wine will quickly pick up on it when someone doesn’t know what they are talking about.”

Meijer works closely with its suppliers in organizing their tastings, which usually take place on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, to make the most of high-traffic times. Those conducting the tastings are usually supplied by the winery, but Kamp underlines that, even if a tasting coordinator is from outside your establishment, they should be familiar with your store before they hit the floor.

“They are the face of the retailer to the customer,” he says. “It’s important that they are knowledgeable about that entire department, and they really should have some level of familiarity with the store as a whole. If you are sampling wine in the wine department, there will always be someone who asks you where the cheese is. That’s going to happen – especially with a supercenter format like Meijer.

Secondary Benefits

Kamp points out that tastings in a grocery store environment not only boost wine sales, but, when executed properly, provide an opportunity to increase sales in other departments as well.

“There are tremendous cross-merchandising benefits,” he says. “We will pair a nice wine, a cheese, a chocolate, or even something from the deli area.” And, he adds, the hands-on nature of wine tasting demonstrates to customers that the store is committed to providing good service.

But what happens when in-store wine tastings are illegal in your state, or require an expensive license that you may not be willing to invest in right now? Meijer, which has stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, may only conduct tastings in Illinois; it’s illegal to pop a cork in the rest of the states except for Indiana, which requires retailers to purchase a license. To get around this restriction, Meijer provides specially-trained “hand-sellers” who circulate throughout the department, offering customers advice and recounting various details about each wine. If you can put a bottle into a client’s hand, Kamp reasons, it’s 80 percent sold.

“People don’t want to, if they are going to someone’s house, buy a bottle of wine and look like they don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “If you have someone who is wine-knowledgeable, and who can give them food pairings, information about the winery or the history of the wine, now you personalize that product for them. Then, when the customer goes to somebody’s house with that bottle of wine, they are not only confident that they have the right bottle, but they also have a little story to tell.”

In conjunction with tastings or hand-sellers, special events are another good way to drive traffic through your wine department. Kamp recounts that, during tastings, some Meijer locations charge several cents a glass to donate to a local organization – solidifying the retailer’s involvement in the community. Meijer will also invite some of the country’s better-known winemakers to come into a store to speak and sign bottles. Every effort is made to have wines bolster the store and to help the store to sell more wine.

To encourage purchases, Ormon notes that BLM offers a 20 percent discount on the wines that are being tasted with a minimum purchase of three bottles. Kamp believes that pricing should be very aggressive during a tasting so that customers are encouraged to try the wine at home – and hopefully, come back to buy more at the regular price. “My philosophy has always been that you pretty much need to give the product away,” he says. “I almost look at it as a loss leader. I will sell wine at cost during a wine tasting just to get the product into people’s hands. If even 10 percent of the people that tasted it come back the following week and they buy it at full margin because they like it, or they tell a friend or neighbor about it, it can be an extremely powerful way to market product.”

A Bit About Beer

When it’s not staging wine tastings, Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, California – which also sells North American micro-brews and world-class beers – holds monthly beer tastings based on various themes. Dan Rhodes, the store’s French wine buyer, notes that these events differ greatly from those dedicated to wine, although both can be powerful sales boosters if they cater to the consumer in the right way.

“It’s two different crowds,” Rhodes says. “There is a definite beer aficionado that appreciates the subtle differences in beer, but it’s a little bit different in that it’s a little bit more about a camaraderie between beer drinkers. There is more social interaction going on and it’s more of a pub atmosphere. We provide snacks, such as chips, pretzels and pizza rolls.”

During wine tastings, the store offers bread, but the focus on snacks is minimal in order to keep the palette neutral.

Rhodes believes that this difference between the two beverages is rooted in our social conditioning. “We are conditioned to think of wine as a more artistic beverage and beer as a more commercial, industrial beverage,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that; I think there are some really artistic beers that are really well done and produced in small quantities, and a lot of industrial plonk that calls itself wine. I don’t necessarily agree with the perception, but it is the perception.”