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11.2005

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Joseph Astukewicz

QUESTION What's the easiest way to sell a great bottle of wine that your clientele will love even when you aren't immediately available to assist them - especially during this busiest of seasons? Answer A piece of well written, eye-pleasing Point-of-Sale (POS), or as it's more casually known, a shelf-talker. Try as you may, some of your valued customers will have to peruse the shelves this holiday season without your valuable input. But you can communicate with them, and successfully match the right bottle with the right consumer, even if you're tied down with vendors all day (which tends to happen a bit more often this time of year). Shelf talkers are the best way to showcase a product's uniqueness, especially in large stores, or in establishments which, while they may try, do not have enough employees to possibly help all of their customers in the most effective way. Next to a competent and well-trained wine staff (or buyer, if it's a smaller store), the most effective way to get customers to try something new, especially if it's a somewhat obscure bottling (yet something you really know they'll love), is a well-written, informative and accurate shelf-talker that's also both eye-catching and tasteful. In my experience, a more esoteric selection (especially with a dark or plain label) without good POS will often stagnate on the shelf while waiting for brand-death - that inevitable dust-covered trip to the clearance rack. On the other hand, a detailed, concise shelf-talker will result in quick product movement and return customers.

To seasoned proprietors, this may seem all too obvious. However, there's more to these wonderful little wine-vignettes-on-a-postcard than one first might imagine. This is not an article simply advising that you consider posting shelf-talkers in your shop; most likely they're already in use to some degree. Nor do I advocate that proprietors begin hanging them willy-nilly on every 1.5L of Merlot, Aussie Shiraz and White Zin in the store. I recommend a balanced, sensible approach to Point-of-Sale that will help both your store (and your suppliers for that matter) sell more wine. In addition, it can also help to educate your customers even when you aren't available. Not only will this allow you to expand the selection of existing wine categories in your shop, it will also enable you to bring in some additional, more obscure categories as well.

And it's not limited to expensive wines, most of which need a shelf-talker or personal recommendation in order to move. After all, what good is it to carry an obscure wine from Spain made with the indigenous Moristel varietal, (or Tempranillo, for that matter) even if it's one of the best wines in the store, and you bought all the supplier had left for a song, if the customer isn't familiar with that particular grape? It might cost $8/bottle, but they won't look at it twice - even if it is infinitely better than the Merlot they always buy at the same price. Not that you want them to stop buying their favorite Merlot, but wouldn't it be great if they felt comfortable enough in your selections to try something new? You see where I'm going with this - eventually they might come into the store looking to put together a mixed case of new things to try, and that's the goal. But first, customers want to know, even just a little bit, about what they're buying. Take that same bottle of obscure Spanish wine: some retailers wouldn't buy it no matter how low the price, even if it was one of the best wines they had ever tasted. Good proprietors know their customer base, and know what's too obscure for them to sell. Let's face it - it's not so much of a value if you have to hand-sell every single bottle. That's where a reliable shelf-talker comes in. If that retailer, who "knows" she can't sell a particularly obscure red, were to put it on the shelf next to a top-selling Merlot or Cabernet (depending on the new wine's style) with some well-written POS, it would sell. And her customers will be happy with the shop and the superior, exciting new product she turned them on to. In addition, a customer who "choses" a bottle of wine on his own will feel good about his decision, and more confident the next time he browses your selection.

But enough about the merits The question still remains - how can you ensure effective POS finds its way to your wine aisles, and what style of shelf-talkers are the most effective (the ones that really move product)? It's important first to have set standards in your store regarding POS. First, your particular situation and location will determine whether you'll have to generate most of it on your own or demand it from your suppliers as a condition of purchase. For example, if you run your business in a control state or have poor-quality sales representatives who either don't have the knowledge to make good POS or don't care about follow-through, you may have to produce your own. This may be tempting for any retailer, even those serviced by an abundance of well-trained sales representatives, as wine managers often have volumes of yellow legal pads packed with tasting notes and binders full of winery information. If you have the time, by all means this is the best way, as it adds a personalized touch to the store that customers will surely appreciate. But few of us do have the time to write concise reviews for hundreds, if not thousands, of products. Fed up with generic shelf-talkers from their suppliers, fine wine managers will often set lofty goals, vowing to create immense amounts of marketing pieces themselves. Keeping up with POS yourself, however, can quickly become tedious, as it inevitably gets dog-eared and vintages change. Since the salespeople are there, why not use them to keep track of their own products? You just have to be clear about what you want, and what you don't want. Ideally, your salespeople will be eager to please if you make it clear what's expected, especially in super-competitive markets. Also, in larger stores with lots of traffic and a highly variable customer base, having a variety of competent people making their own style of shelf-talkers is a plus. Different consumers like all different kinds of wine, and eventually each type of customer will hopefully come to identify with a particular salesperson's style of wine-speak, which they recognize and find to be accurate for their taste.

In any case, you'll have to be selective about deciding which wines get attention, as time is limited (even more so if you have to generate it all on your own), and not all wines need a shelf-talker. Let the wines with a reputation sell themselves. For instance, perhaps you don't need a shelf-talker on 2OO2 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley - it sells on its own by recognition and reputation. If anything, a simple card containing the name of the wine and the price may do. But what about its poor neighbor on the rack, 2OO2 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon, which is similarly priced (and absolutely fabulous) from Rutherford? Without a shelf-talker, this wine may be too limited and obscure to find its way into consumers' hands, unless you personally are there to sell it to them. The key is not to draw attention to every product, but to make sure the more obscure, small production wines sell. As I discussed earlier, it is these lesser known products that will help your shop's reputation and attract more (and hopefully higher-spending) consumers.

Now the final question What style of POS is most effective at selling wine when the staff are all busy helping other customers? All shelf-talkers should include four fundamental points. First, include something about the region where the wine is from, its characteristics, etc. Next, ensure information is included about the winery itself, its history, etc. Third, a short, accurate tasting note is most important. Finally, especially for European wines, the cepage or grape-blend. If there's room, it's also helpful to include food-pairing suggestions (but not generic, useless ones like "great with meat" or "great with fish" - these are far too broad to be helpful). Length should be kept to an absolute minimum. Trust me - very few customers will take the time to stand in the aisle reading two paragraphs about one particular wine.

There are also cosmetic considerations. In my experience brightly colored cards with a hand-written description of the wine can't be beat, as long as they're accurate and concise. Hand-written cards illustrate to the customer a level of passion and excitement about a certain wine on a personal level. They show that someone felt strongly enough about the quality of the wine to actually take the time to write something; the card is their own work, and wasn't a generic description spit out from a supplier database. After all, how many times can we read that "this Cabernet Sauvignon has notes of black cherry and cassis complemented by hints of toasty vanilla oak, firm tannins and a long, rich finish" before it gets ridiculously redundant? If you end up writing or demanding hand-written POS, there are a few other factors to consider. Obviously unreadable penmanship is unacceptable, as are spelling errors - it's just plain unprofessional. Also, less than competent writing ability and grammar will spoil this method. If a salesperson can't achieve an acceptable level of quality in their hand-written cards, insist on having him hang type-written POS that either he or the wholesaler's marketing department creates. Insist that it still conform to your standards, however.

Consistent, high-quality POS will help you to gain the trust and confidence of your valuable customers. If it's honest and precise, and doesn't over-inflate the quality of the wine, they will appreciate the educational information that good shelf-talkers provide. On the other hand, if someone keeps getting burned by misleading marketing pieces, they're likely to ignore them, leaving you with nothing but brightly colored, ineffective window dressing. Worse, they're also likely to begin ignoring you when you try to sell them a superb bottle. After all, if they complain to you about a bad bottle that they bought based on the recommendation of a sorely inaccurate shelf-talker (for instance, describing young Brunello as "soft"), and you explain to them that it wasn't you but a misguided salesperson who's to blame, the customer will assume that at best you're not looking out for her, and, at worst that you condone using shifty sales tactics to sell wine.

On that note I have one final recommendation: if you use magazine and journal reviews and/or critics' scores on store POS (which can be extremely effective, if somewhat impersonal and just a bit lacking in effort), you absolutely must maintain vintage accuracy. Not only is it illegal to tout the incorrect score as the rating for a vintage wine, it can result in some very unhappy customers who will think that you're intentionally trying to deceive them. Insist that the vintage, description, score, and actual wine on the shelf match, and that the issue in which the quoted review is taken from be stated.

Certainly you'll sell more wine and make more friends this holiday season if you continue to produce or insist that your wholesalers supply quality POS. As we all know, selling more wine is key, and it's possible even you can't see all your customers all the time. For the times that you miss them, let good shelf-talkers work for you. You might be amazed at the additional sales you can generate, and the variety of wine you can sell by properly using this classic, highly effective, yet simple and passive marketing technique.


JOSEPH ASTUKEWICZ is the Wine Manager for Yankee Spirits in Sturbridge. In addition to running the wine department he also writes the store's bi-monthly newsletter The Yankee Wine Journal. For more information visit www.yankeespirits.com.

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