Opinion

Tom Wark on the New and Complex Reality for Independent Fine Wine Retailers Mid-Pandemic

The National Association of Wine Retailers’ executive director shares key takeaways from a recent industry survey

Tom Wark on the New and Complex Reality for Independent Fine Wine Retailers Mid-Pandemic
Illustration by Larry Lee.

“The off-premise sector is booming during the coronavirus pandemic.” This is the widely circulated report, at least. Yet we know this is far from the whole story. In an attempt to flesh out the state of off-premise retailing during this unprecedented time, the National Association of Wine Retailers (NAWR) recently conducted a survey* of 70 independent fine wine retailers across the country to produce a more intimate and nuanced portrait of this segment of the industry. 

Our survey results show an off-premise industry in flux. Many fine wine retailers reported lower sales and layoffs since the pandemic hit the U.S.nowhere near the rosy sales scenario that many news outlets have described. Here are some of the most important insights:

For Many Retailers, Sales and Profits Slump

Contrary to the perception that wine stores are seeing off-the-charts sales increases uniformly, 44 percent of our respondents reported their sales have been down since March 1. Part of this is explained by the fact that 40 percent of respondents noted the average price per bottle sold was well below the pre-March average. One retailer noted that customers are spending “10 to 20 percent lower than normal.” It confirms what we are seeing across the country: folks sheltering in place are more often seeking out “value” wines to add to their quarantine cupboard. 

Layoffs Hitting Off-Premise, Too

While most coverage and conversation has focused on mass layoffs at restaurants and bars, we learned that 35 percent of our respondents have laid off some employees. This was partly offset by the 10 percent who confirmed that they have hired more employees since March 1.    

Graph courtesy of National Association of Wine Retailers.

Curbside Pickup is King

Over 70 percent of our respondents have instituted curbside pickup regimes at their stores. In some states, this is the only form of sales permitted currently. Delivery options have increased as well, reported 55 percent of retailers, and many have widened the area to which they will deliver. For many, this raises the question of how much of this new model will remain once the shutdowns are lifted; will consumers expect this same service forever? 

The Website Has Become the Store

Website traffic has increased for 65 percent of our respondents, and 25 percent report this increase as “significant.” Again, this should be no surprise given that many consumers are avoiding physical shopping environments. This finding also points to a potential lasting change in a post-COVID world: If consumers maintain their online ordering habits, retailers will be forced to devote more time and resources to their internet presence.

Logistics Headaches Abound

We found that 50 percent of respondents are experiencing moderate or significant delays in delivery and/or pick up of orders from common carriers like FedEx and UPS. This is understandable given the sudden ramp-up, yet it suggests that logistics companies will need to increase their capacity if consumers maintain heightened interest in online purchasing. 

Less Wholesaler Interaction—Yet More Allocated Wine

A full 75 percent of respondents report decreased in-person interaction with their wholesalers. “Due to the current situation, we allow sales reps to visit us under very controlled circumstances,” which has decreased meetings, wrote one respondent, adding that this has resulted in a focus on fewer suppliers. Moreover, 40 percent reported delays in order taking and/or product delivery. Interestingly though, a significant number of retailers noted that they are now being offered the opportunity to purchase wines formerly highly-allocated or prioritized for restaurant sales.

A Changed Future Landscape?

This survey is unable to shed much light on what the off-premise world will look like when the orders for social distancing and self-quarantines have been lifted; so much depends on how Americans react to this unprecedented experience and how lawmakers respond to the inevitable calls to take a closer look at whether any of the various emergency measures, like loosened regulations on shipping and sales, could influence potential permanent changes. The alcohol industry is notoriously slow in making systemic change.

Still, it’s very hard to believe that this kind of unique social experiment will not bring some lasting change to the way wine is bought and sold off-premise, hopefully in ways that make life more convenient for consumers.

* The survey was conducted using SurveyMonkey between March 25 and April 10, 2020. Respondents were divided between NAWR member and non-member independent fine wine retailers across the country.

Tom Wark is the executive director of the National Association of Wine Retailers, a position in which he manages and helps direct lobbying, litigation, and membership strategy and management for the organization. He is the author of “Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog” and founder of the American Wine Blog Awards and the Wine Bloggers Conference. 

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