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Spirit Merchants and The Knowledge Gap

When I’m in a Wine and Spirits store, perusing the whiskey section, more times than not I’m approached by a store clerk that really doesn’t know what they are talking about. I don’t mean that to sound ugly because most times that’s perfectly fine (I know what I want or I’m just checking things out). However a recent encounter had me thinking about a customer scanning a shop’s inventory reliant upon a store clerk’s advice or guidance to make a purchasing decision.

Let me give you an example of what I mean and the reason I decided to write this post……

Last Saturday I was in a new section of town here in Franklin, TN, and I strolled into a beautiful wine and spirits store. I make this a habit wherever I go. I’m not always in need of something, but I don’t like to pass by a liquor store without popping in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ran across some real gems that many higher traffic shops have don’t stock any longer. This store in fact had every bottle of the Buffalo Trace Antique collection from 2010. Anyone that was upset they never got their hands on a bottle of George T. Stagg or William Larue Weller (from 2010) would be very pleased walking into this establishment. They haven’t been on the shelves at many of the better stores in town in more than 10 months and the 2011 releases are coming out as we speak.

While scanning the inventory a young store clerk approached me and asked me if I needed any help. I told him I was doing fine and complimented him on the selection (which was pretty solid). That started a conversation about some of the new whiskeys they got in recently. He was doing just fine, until he said the following……

Store Clerk: (Pointing to a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel) “See that bottle of Four Roses right there?”
Me: “Yep”
Store Clerk: “That is what they start with for Pappy Van Winkle?”
Me: “What?”
Store Clerk: “The whiskey in that bottle is the same whiskey that’s in Pappy Van Winkle. It’s just aged longer for Pappy Van Winkle. It’s great whiskey.” (I am NOT joking!)
Me: “Actually you are correct it is great whiskey, but it’s not Pappy Van Winkle…..” I went on to explain that Four Roses has 2 mashbills, and that Single Barrel happens to be their highest percentage of Rye. I also explained that it is one of, if not THE highest percentage rye of any bourbon on the market. The lesson concluded with explaining the Pappy, Van Winkle, and Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon line is all wheated bourbon with no rye at all. They are on two opposite ends of the bourbon spectrum.
Store Clerk: “Oh! That’s just what the owner told me.”

This is not unusual. I’d venture to guess similar exchanges happen all of the time at liquor stores across the country. I’m sure many of you have had these types of discussions. It’s not necessarily the store clerk’s fault that he didn’t know this information. It is however the owners fault for not either brushing up on his/her own knowledge in an effort to help the store’s customers, as well as for not working with the store clerk to improve his knowledge.

We live in the information age where a clerk can look up a quick reference to the products on their shelves in an instant. Spending a little time doing this builds a stronger connection to the store and to that particular clerk when a customer has a great experience. Even if the clerk did not know an answer to a question, stopping for a moment, excusing himself and returning with more information (using the internet) would be a great way to go above and beyond.

There are shining examples across the country where effort and care has been taken by good spirit merchants, but they are the exception to the rule. As a liquor store owner or manager, think how big a differentiator that kind of product knowledge can be for your shop in a sea of sameness. Now go do something about it.

My Suggestions:
Most obviously, if you own or manage a liquor store, be sure to educate and train your staff if you indeed have the knowledge and resources. If you do not then you must first educate yourself. Here are some suggestions.

1) Use your distributors that may have intimate knowledge about the products they distribute. I’ve talked to a few that do a very good job in knowing their products in and out and what separates them. In many cases they carry enough whiskey products they can do some comparisons so you have an idea of the ranges.
2) Subscribe to publications like The Whisky Advocate (formerly Malt Advocate) and Whisky Magazine.
3) Spend time on the internet reading blogs and sites focused on whiskey that your shop specializes in or that appeal to your customers. There are lots of resources out there.
4) Invite master distillers, brand managers, and distributors to come speak to your staff and customers. All of these people want their products sold. This is a great way for them to educate your team so they are more informed while also educating your customers.
5) Attend events like WhiskyFest and WhiskyLive to experience many of these products in one single, efficient location. Perhaps not very practical in light of the other suggestions, but if this is an option for you, there are few places where you’ll be able to try so many products at once.

While you are doing all of this, bring your staff in on the act. Give them the opportunity to learn along with you whenever possible. There are probably an infinite number of suggestions that can be made here to help improve a store’s product knowledge. The above is a good start.

As customers, what suggestions do you all have that could help stores serve you better?

25 Comments

  1. David says:

    I’ve had similar conversations here in Lexington, KY at a large liquor store. When the store clerk left I had to instruct a fellow bourbon customer “the real story”. Unfortunately, Jason, I think it happens with liquor or hamburgers or whatever. People don’t take as much pride in their jobs anymore. Most of what I learned about whiskey, I read from others, like you, on the internet.

  2. Tommy Viola says:

    Good post, Jason.

    I wonder if the owner told the store clerk the Van Winkle info concerning Weller 7 and 12 (in which case it would be sort of true, or at least it will be once the SW stocks run out and PVW 15 and 20 becomes a fully BT distillate), and he just got the bottles mixed up.

  3. AaronWF says:

    Interesting topic, Jason. I’ve thought about this in relation to most things I buy, especially the more hobby-centric purchases. My impression is that the vast majority of people who work in liquor stores, for instance, work there because that’s where they found a job, not because they have any particular passion for the product.

    Now, I really don’t want to make over-reaching generalizations here, but I don’t expect to get knowledgeable service from the teenager working at Best Buy, and I don’t expect a liquor store clerk to know the difference between bourbon and rye. When I want to buy a tv, I do my own research so I can get an understanding about what I want, then I’ll go to a store like Best Buy to buy it. I could go to a ’boutique’ A/V store, but Best Buy’s prices are better, and the reason they’re better is because they don’t pay their employees as much as the boutique store does.

    I’ve had awesome conversations about whiskey with Binny’s employees at various locations in the Chicago area. Being a hobby of mine, I would expect to know more about whiskey than most of the employees I talk to, so when I find someone as passionate as I am about it, it’s a treat!

    Personally, and I don’t say this without reservations and even some disappointment, but I would choose a lower price on my whiskey over a knowledgeable employee.

  4. David D says:

    “Personally, and I don’t say this without reservations and even some disappointment, but I would choose a lower price on my whiskey over a knowledgeable employee.”

    ….and there, Jason, is the reason for your problem. The most educated customers, the ones your ideal stores are catering to, are always the ones looking for the lowest price first. Mostly, because they’ve done the research on their own and don’t need that expert advise. Once Amazon gets a hold of single malts, that’s it.

  5. David and Aaron;

    I don’t think a “good price” and “good knowledge” are mutually exclusive here. Also I don’t believe people are looking for the rock rock bottom either if they are getting great service and access to great stuff. If a merchant invests in great stuff, staying ahead of the market, can help educate customers, and keep me informed as well then they are a merchant that gets it. Secondly they can do that without adding 5-10%.

    David, as an example – i’m sure you’ve done some price comparisons between your store (K&L) and others. I sure did in your store relative to what we pay here when I was at your store 3 weeks ago. I thought your prices were about dead on across the board. Maybe a buck here higher, a buck lower there. In general right there on point with what I would expect to pay. You don’t put yourselves out there as “lowest price retailers” either and yet you manage to offer prices that are very reasonable and in line. However, you are also able to do that AND have a great selection, be “the first” to get the newest releases, offer unique (KL only) bottles, etc. Is it difficult? I’m sure it is. It’s not easy – you guys also have multiple stores so volume is higher than a one-store owner, but still it gets done right?

    Aaron, I do agree in some respects. I wouldn’t pay $4-5 more for a Single Malt or for some new release when I can get it somewhere else for less. But I know enough about you to know that you also buy a lot from Binny’s. And I’d venture to guess you do so because you believe their prices are fair AND their selection is good. Am I right? You also know your stuff and what you want, so when all else fails you know you can get a solid price there. Understandable.

    The bottom line is I think being knowledgable, giving your customers a great experience, and offering a good, fair, price are all executable things. If you guys don’t agree, please share more.

    Invest in your customers a little, offer insights and advice that wows, and don’t just be a square box with shelf space for stuff to sit on.

  6. Tommy, good point – you are probably exactly right about that.

    David Dedman, That happens to me all the time as well so I understand.

  7. AaronWF says:

    I do 90% of my spirits, beer and wine purchasing from Binny’s, and I do so because they have the broadest, deepest selection in my area and the lowest prices. The only reason for me to go to the liquor store on the corner would be because I need something right now and don’t have time to drive the extra distance to Binny’s – that does not happen often, if ever. I pass by many liquor stores on my commute to and from work, and Binny’s carries every bottle they have at a lower price.

    I enjoy talking shop with the educated Binny’s employees, but if I could get the same juice somewhere else for a better price, I’d shop there. Retailers who do their own private bottlings are a definite draw for me, but there’s only one other store in the Chicago area that I know of that does this (West Lakeview Liquors). On standard bottles, Binny’s beats them in price every time, though lately I’ve noticed their prices have actually come down a bit.

    Anyway, my point is that, yes, there has to be someone knowledgeable enough at the store to know which whiskeys to carry and when they are allocated; you can only drink as well as what’s available to you. But, and again I can’t help but find this unfortunate, knowledgeable employees ranks beneath selection and price every time. Not being a business owner, I can’t say for certain that price and educated staff are mutually exclusive, but it seems logical to me that a store who pays their employees less money can afford to offer lower prices.

  8. MAL says:

    I live 5 hours from Chicago but I go there often and I stop at Binny’s everytime. Great selection, good prices and knowledgeable staff. Spent an hour talking bourbon with an employee at the store near North Ave. I usually hit the South Loop store so I have the added bonus of grabbing a roast beef samy at Manny’s deli across the street. I wonder how much more Binny’s pays their people than the standard liquor shops. Here in Michigan the state controls the prices. I’ve noticed the stores that are the biggest and have the best selection and sales volume have the most knowledgeable staff.

  9. Ford says:

    So true about popping into random liquor stores and finding gems. I did just that at an unassuming strip mall in the ‘burbs recently. There in the locked case were a couple of Pappy Van Winkles. I left without them, came back a week later and they were gone. Doh!

  10. David D says:

    It’s the wine that allows me to do that. There’s no pressure on K&L to even offer liquor because most of our profit comes from wine. Other liquor stores don’t have that luxury. Competitive prices mean less money to pay bills. Higher prices mean more money to pay employees.

  11. MW says:

    And don’t get me started on tour guides at distilleries! Some are very good & some…..they need to either educate themselves or find another job. I could not believe all the BS I heard on the bourbon trail…not just the marketing flannel (that is to be expected) but absolutely wrong information. And when they start preaching personal politics; assuming we all agree w/them – NOT! You could feel the atmosphere change (not for the good) when they went down the politics road. We’re here to see/learn about your distillery – not your personal politics or what the lobbyist for the distillers wants you to say.

    My “favorite” was the guide who explained that bonded warehouses just means they are insured & everyone is insured so it’s a meaningless term…..OMG

    I heard the same song & dance almost verbatim about taxes on alcohol – I’m guessing the lobbyists/owners want them to do this -it was pretty obvious since they were all said the same thing.

  12. Jeffrey Woolley says:

    Dear Jason,

    The state of Washington runs the show here and so you can imagine the quality of our liquor stores. I do a fair amount of browsing myself and when a clerk asks me if I need help I usually respond with something like “I am just checking if you have anything new or interesting.” This often results here in a recommendation for an overpriced and under-crafted local whiskey or Bulleit. There are a few stores that have knowledgeable staff active in the whiskey community, but even they come up with some interesting lore. Perhaps what you should do is develop a whiskey curriculum you could sell to WA State for a few hundred thousand dollars per annum. Though I would advise you wait until after we vote in November as, unless the scare campaign wins out again, we finally will get some selection here.

    Yours,

    JDW

  13. Ethan Smith says:

    Being in PA, which has a state controlled liquor system and the wonderful “state stores,” there is absolutely no incentive for any of the employees to know their product. They have a secure state job and as long as they show up for work and do their job, they don’t get fired. Customer service here and product knowledge is about the lowest you can go. It’s always a breath of fresh air to go to Maryland and talk to the store employees there. Seems like most of them know what they’re talking about!

  14. theBitterFig says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily single out control states as being particularly bad for service. In Maine, we’ve got a mixed system with control-style selection and price structure, with private retailing. A monopoly wholesale distributor sets prices and one product list for every store (though not every store has every item), and the retailing is handled usually grocery stores and convenience stores with liquor sections. In a grocery store, there simply is nobody whom one could ask for advice, and minimum wage clerks in other shops also have little incentive to be knowledgeable. There are a few rather-specialised drinks merchants, but in the ones I’ve been to, again no one really knew anything. Unless ownership (state or private) takes an interest in providing that service, it just won’t happen, and most owners care more about profits than a passion for spirits. I’ve been in wine shops where the staff have been helpful here in Maine, and that’s probably due to the fact that they are often the owners of the shops and passionate about their product. Taking that a step further, it’s probably an extension of the fact that wine is a more popular connoisseur beverage than spirits right now, and there’s simply a greater demand for smart wine merchants than spirit merchants.

  15. Jeffrey – you’ve given me an idea! ; )

  16. Ben says:

    Just wanted to add a “me too” to the endorsement of Binny’s Beverage Depot in the Chicago area. My local Binny’s (in the north suburbs) has staff who are knowledgeable about bourbon and extremely knowledgeable about Scotch. I’ve relied heavily on their recommendations and have never been misled. Nothing like a big liquor chain in a major metropolitan area . . .

  17. sam k says:

    I’m a Pennsylvanian like Ethan, but I’m in the dead center of the state, so there are few available options for me. Fortunately, though, my local monopoly outlet has a decent (not great) selection of American whiskeys, and a couple of very enthusiastic whiskey-centric salespeople who have turned me on to new items when they arrive, or good deals that weren’t on my radar. Others in the same store can be drones.

    If I were a scotch fan, Pennsylvania would be whisky purgatory. The single malt selection consists of about 50 choices statewide…really! Only 35 of those are widely available.

    Anytime I’m out of state, I make it a point to explore the free-market competition, and Binny’s is always a must-stop for all the reasons cited above. They (and select others) are excellent examples of why service, selection, and price can coexist given the right circumstances.

    Can’t wait for PA to privatize, and I hope they don’t screw it up, but I’m not holding my breath. (It’s in the hands of politicians, ya know?)

  18. sku says:

    Great post Jason.

    As to the discussion between Aaron and David, I just ordered a new whiskey from my local retailer, even though I know I found it for $10 cheaper at an on-line source. Why? I want to support my local guys because they run a quality operation, offer stuff no one else does, and I want them to succeed. I’m willing to pay a little extra because I get such good service from them.

    I don’t want good local liquor stores to go the way of good local book shops, which mostly shut down sometime in the 1990s. You know, those shops where the people who worked there actually read books and were interested in them which were replaced by the big chains whose employees had similar knowledge to the big liquor store guys.

  19. Greg says:

    I’m intrigued by your commenters that indicate there is a mom and pop element to their experience. I would overpay for such service, but have very rarely seen this type of good service in a liquor store. Liquor in this county is still seen as a seedy industry, and not given the treatment high end department or specialty stores get.

    Overheard in a liquor store TODAY: “Honey, did I tell you about this amazing mango flavored vodka drink I had? You could drink and drink it and not get sick of it.” The real issue is that liquor stores are catering towards the youngest of us who just want to get drunk and not taste anything, rather than us whiskey geeks. And why should they? I haven’t done extensive research, but I’d bet my house that flavored vodkas destroy my favorite small batch bourbons on the open market.

    Beer has made serious inroads, and being literate (at least) in craft beer is now a necessity in my local market. But whisky is another story. Why? I don’t have any real answers, just raising more questions. I guess I would say that the bourbon industry is fighting against years of being seen as a vice based operation, rather than a legit business.

  20. I’ve stayed out of this conversation thus far, but I think people on both sides have a point. That said, I tend to go where they have the best selection of whiskeys and at the lowest prices. If a whiskey is very rare (BTAC, Pappy) I’ll go to a place that charges a premium but has it in stock. If it’s everything else, I generally know enough about it to already know what I want, and what I want is the lowest prices. However, if an employee actively engaged me while browsing and knew what he was talking about, and had informed recommendations, then I would pay a few dollar premium, no doubt.

  21. Eric S. says:

    I honestly don’t care what the store employee knows or doesn’t know. I know… and that’s all that matters.

    I also live in a control state (Ohio). It sucks for any kind of selection for any kind of whisk(e)y. I’d take selection and decent prices over educated employees any day, but that’s just me.

  22. SteveBM says:

    I’m in the same camp as Sku. All things being equal in terms of selection, I like to support local. This usually means a few extra bucks out of my pocket but it’s not much of a difference if shipping would be involved with an online purchase anyways. Plus, sometimes my local haunts have sales, like the one shop that had Four Roses Single Barrel on sale for $29.99 for at least 6 months, if not longer! Most of the time the price is high though. Even outlets like Total Wine & Spirits who tout low prices come in on the high side sometimes, especially with limited releases.

    If the store clerk can strike up conversation about their whiskey selection or inform of new offerings, that’s a bonus. Otherwise, I do my research online and in publications and gain additional knowledge from blogs thanks to guys like you, Sku, Chuck Cowdery, and Greg over at Bourbon Dork. So, thanks for that!

  23. SteveBM thanks for the comment. Agreed, support local.

  24. mikesway says:

    Hi guys, new to the site. I’ve been enjoying your reviews immensely Jason!

    I’m not sure if this is the right thread for this, but this is some good info for you Chicagoland Handy Rye fans.

    I was lucky enough to acquire some Stagg, WLW and Eagle Rare at the downtown Binny’s, but last time I looked they were completely out. But by chance, I checked out the new Binny’s in Arlington Heights, IL which just opened a couple days ago. All they had was about 7 bottles of ER2010 and an unbelievable 30 or so bottles of Handy 2009/2010 mix! All just sitting on the shelves! Too bad they weren’t Staggs or WLW, or I’d be taking out a loan. So check it out if you’re looking for some Handy!

  25. Rob H says:

    Jason,

    A late comment, but I had to do share my same experience. I walked into what I am betting is the very same store in Franklin, Tn today. I’ve heard great things about Pappy’s but can’t seem to find it anywhere, so I’ve taken to popping into every liquor store I find near. Since the wife and I were Christmas shopping next door, I had to take a quick look. When asked if I needed help finding anything, I inquired to the availability of Pappy’s. Not surprisingly, they didn’t have any. However, the gentlemen assisting me very matter-of-factly pointed to W. L. Weller’s and told me it was, for all practical purposes, Pappy’s. “comes from the same barrel” I was told. “Aged longer is all” was the mantra.

    I am not an expert in Bourbon, other than I know what I like, and I’ve heard wonderful things about Pappys. But, I passed on the Weller’s as I just had this “feeling” the gentleman was blowing smoke. Based on your review of WLW, I may have made a mistake passing it up, but fortunately, I’m close enough I can return to grab a bottle.

    Anyway, after reading your comments about being told Four Roses was also Pappy’s, I would say this particular merchant is willing to point at anything in the store in an attempt to sell it. At least WLW is wheated, so he was in the ballpark I suppose.

    Please correct me if he was steering me true and I blew it.

    v/r
    Rob

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