I am not a psychologist, nor have I ever studied sociology, but when you spend a lot of time on the forefront of sales like I have, you tend to notice how people react to stimulus, excitement, and the power of suggestion. It has taught me how to interact and communicate with people and most importantly, how to honestly gain trust in people who are otherwise strangers visiting a retail establishment for ten or fifteen minutes every week or month.
Why do we give our trust away so freely sometimes? In the wine retail industry, we, as wine professionals, are titled in numerous ways; Sommelier, Wine Professional, Wine Experts, Masters of Wine, or if Apple sold wine, they would proclaim us Wine Genius’ (Just a little over-the-top with that one Apple). But what if all of those titles went away and all the experts, myself included were called, Wine Salesperson. It would never work on a retail level because of the negative connotation brought forth by shady car salesmen and guys selling snake oil potions city by city in the early days of a growing America. Although, on a corporate level, it is okay and a rather acceptable term to be referred to as such. I am a wine salesman for an Italian import company and deal directly with owners and wine buyers of retail wine and liquor establishments and restaurants. When I walk into a business, I am usually greeted with a smile and invited in for conversation. Many times, I run into competitors, but in this business, we are more so peers. We are all fighting for the best placement on shelves and to have our wines displayed prominently in the front of the store right where the customer walks in the building. When we are given the chance to display a wine in a “high velocity” space like that, we are hoping it is with a wine that is eye-catching. As a former manager of a retail wine store, I know how crucial label design and even the design of the cardboard cases they are packed in are relevant to having a gravitational pull on a wine shopper’s eye. Wineries and marketers are trying to invoke all of your senses in hopes to get you to purchase their bottle of wine over sometimes thousands of other selections in a wine shop. You may be thinking to yourself right now that you are one of those people who buys wine based on the label design. Case in point, it worked on you. That one bottle isn’t all they are hoping you buy though. Sure the label got the bottle of wine into your basket, but it is the winemaker’s job to make a wine that you will want to buy over and over again. Things to be mindful of when buying a wine on your own (without help from a wine professional): Great packaging does in no way mean a wine will good or bad, but it does mean that the vineyard has spent extra time and usually money with the intent to make it appealing because they want you to try their wine. Where there is money for packaging, there is also money in the wine making process and they probably have great facilities to make their wine in. If they are putting in the time on marketing and packaging, you are at least going to get an average to above average wine. If that wine is in your budget, take it home, give it a try and let the wine do the rest.
If you’re lucky, sometimes when you walk into a store, they will be featuring a wine and pouring free samples, creating excitement about the wine. Who doesn’t love a free shot of wine in the morning! In-store wine tastings are crucial for a retails stores business. Most of the time, it is the store employees, those wine professionals doing the tastings, but where states allow it, many times you will the stores sales representative there pouring the wines. They are known as, vendor-promoted tastings. I am always surprised when I am doing a tasting and a customer does not take a free sample of a wine. Sure there are many reasons not to, but if you are there shopping for a wine and you have been browsing for a while, why not try a new wine? Try-before-you-buy, is like getting intentionally walked in a baseball game. You get a free base and get one step closer to making it home. Excitement is built when a large group gathers around a tasting station. As a pourer, I love it when I get mobbed with a bunch of customers all at the same time. The excitement is contagious and a customer will get the feeling that the wines will be good if everyone else like it. A customers excited suggests to another customers, that this wine is good. The wines are typically being poured for a few good reasons like; it is a new wine to the shop and they are simply just trying to promote it to get its name out and let the wine customers know that it is there. They could also be looking to sell through their current vintages to make room for new vintages or new wines. This does not mean a wine is bad, in fact, they make be trying to move a wine that may not have a long shelf life, like a pinot grigio, because they don’t want to let it slip through the cracks and make it into someone’s basket when it is too late. A wine shop may also be trying to promote a specific wine that they do make a good profit on. It is a business after all. In competitive markets across the states, where advertising and online sales are winning the battles, you may be surprised to learn that the mark-up on wine is not that high at all. On certain name brand wines, they may even be priced at cost or below as a lost liter. Regardless of the reason for the tasting, you can learn a lot of about a wine before you buy it just from a free tasting. You can at least be sure the taster has researched the wine and you are getting all true facts and of course, you will have tried the wine, if you don’t like it, move on. It is more than alright to say you don’t like it. It’s actually a nice way to get to know your local wine professional and let them learn your palate and the styles of wine you like. Believe it or not, your local wine professional thoroughly enjoys getting to know your palates and finding the “perfect” wine for you.
The power of suggestion one on one is an interesting relationship that evolves over time. There are a few kinds of customers a wine professional sees on a daily basis. Some customers are just simply happy with the purchasing the $8 and under wines and large bottle cheap spirits. Mostly, a wine professional will just have to point them in the right direction on their first visit and then never converse with them again afterwards. The wine learner is a person who likes wine, doesn’t want to spend too much on a bottle and usually stays in the $10-$15 price range. They are the ones to usually give up their trust rather quickly to a wine shops professionals with no hesitation, especially ones who don’t mind trying anything. Others will take a little nudging and deeper explanations of regions and grapes. The groups of people that will spend $25 or more on bottles of wine either come from money and don’t mind buying expensive because they can, or they are really into wine, I mean really into wine, and can get all geeked out over terms like “single vineyards,” or “small production,” or “futures pricing.” Wine professionals are trained to know how to deal with all types of customers and make suggestions based on your needs. Whether you need a wine as a gift, to go with dinner, or are a collector, a good wine shop will be able to give you great advice and guide you in the right direction. Keep in mind, it is still a business that needs to meet profit margins.
As margins on wines are low, many retailers with buying power (meaning multiple stores in multiple states) will have suppliers create wine labels to be sold solely at their stores with deals for large quantities. There is one retailer who has stores in states all across the country whose shelves are filled with nearly 50% of privately labeled wines. They tend to push those wines over name brand wines because they can make a higher margin on those wines, which is fine and many times the wines are good. If you have ever bought a wine and you can’t find it online or in a competitor’s store, there is a good chance it is a private label and that same wine has been sold off as dozens of privately labeled wines. My best recommendation is to make friends with your local wine monger and let them earn your trust. Take their suggestions, because after all, that is their job. If a suggestion doesn’t work, let them know. Go back and tell them why it didn’t and ask them to try again, know they will have a mission to find you the best wines that work for you. It make take a few visits, but along the way, your wine professional will learn your tastes and preferences. After a while, when a new wine comes into a shop and they try it, they will think of you when they realize it fits your palates. They will be waiting for you to visit again eager to show you their new finds.
Spending years on a wine sales floor, I had developed many relationships with customers whose trust I earned and palates I learned. One couples children began to call me Uncle Nick every time the family came in shopping for wine. This was the part of I loved about the job, finding wines that matched perfectly for customers. The role in the customer/ employee relationship evolved from salesman to friend. The wine industry, like all retail industries, uses the power of suggestion to entice the buying spirit. From the colors of labels to free samples, but at the end of the day each individual palate is completely different, so let the wine shop earn your trust and let them work for you, but remember, your open mind and honest feedback is pertinent along this journey to make it a successful one. Many of my customers were shocked when I suggested wines from smaller regions like Greece, Lebanon, and Portugal for them and their laudable enjoyment was what I truly relished in. Let the professional guide your education.