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?”
Store Clerk: “That is what they start with for Pappy Van Winkle?”
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.
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?