How Alcohol Retailers Have Evolved with COVID-19

Young woman wearing protective face mask chooses wine in grocery store.

Who could have imagined our present world back in early March? Before the virus swept destructively across America, few could have foreseen how vital masks and hand sanitizer were about to become in our daily lives. Suddenly, maintaining the safety of staff and customers turned into tricky task. COVID-19 remains an ever-present risk for all retailers.

But in the months since March we have all learned much. Best practices have emerged for protecting against the virus. This includes enhanced safety and sanitization measures, as well as a quickening shift towards ecommerce.

Top Safety Techniques

Plexiglas shields protect staff at Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop in Grand Forks, ND.

Until the arrival of a vaccine, COVID-19 is in control. This grim reality of our current state has warped the way that businesses must operate.

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“Our philosophy is that you can’t plan for anything anymore,” says Dustin Mitzel, general manager of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop in Grand Forks, ND. “Every day is a new day. Any day that nobody gets sick and we’re able to stay open safely, that’s a good day — and then we’re onto the next.”

In an uncertain environment, safety standards are critical.

“We put a cleaning regiment in place in March,” Mitzel says. “Wiping down any commonly touched surfaces. Also we put up Plexiglas shields, and social distance signs on our floor. Our staff is in facemasks. The distributor reps are in facemasks.”

Happy Harry’s ordered more facemasks once the products became readily available again. With an eye towards marketing, the business bought facemasks branded as Happy Harry’s. “If you’re going to do something, you may as well get your logo on it,” Mitzel says.

Brooklyn Center Liquor in Brooklyn Center, MN, is a city-operated, multi-unit chain that had to close down at the pandemic’s outset. The business began curbside sales at the end of April, and reopened fully in mid-May, albeit with reduced hours.

Curbside sales have boomed, reports Liquor Operations Manager Tom Agnes. Brooklyn Center Liquor checks IDs over the phone. The customer who puts in the call must be the same person who picks up the order. Employees bringing out the orders must wear full PPE.

Despite the rise in curbside and other digital options, Agnes says it’s important to remember that not all consumers today prefer ecommerce.

“Some people still just like to come into the store,” he says. “They like to see the product and shop the product. They like to see what’s on sale and what’s on display. That’s just the fact with liquor.”

In this age of working from home, shopping in-person can also be a much-needed excuse to leave houses for a break. Accordingly, Brooklyn Center has put up hand sanitizer stations at the entry and by the register. Carts are wiped down after every use. Plexiglas spit guards protect cashiers at the registers. Employees are required to wear masks and gloves.

“A weird silver lining in all this is that our stores have never been cleaner,” Agnes says. “We have a whole new appreciation that our stores are spick and span.”

Outside of Peco’s Liquor Store in Wilmington, DE.

Many retailers report the same. About halfway through the pandemic, Peco’s Liquor Store in Wilmington, DE, hired a private company to come in and do a deep clean of the entire store. Peco’s also runs multiple cleanings throughout the day — now a common exercise in the industry.

“We have routine cleaning of the store every thirty minutes, wiping down credit card terminals, door handles and hard surfaces,” says Kevin Neitzel, owner of Fridge Wholesale Liquor in Manhattan, KS.

As its home state of New Jersey suffered through one of the worst initial coronavirus outbreaks, Gary’s Wine & Marketplace voluntarily shut down. The business successfully moved sales entirely online. Since then, Gary’s has reopened for in-person shopping.

“We have instituted a variety of safety measures to ensure the safety of our guests,” says Gary Fisch, founder and owner. “These included a limit on the number of guests in the store at any time, one-way shopping, stickers on the floor that indicate six-foot distance between other guests, enhanced cleanings, Plexiglas barriers at registers and the discontinuation of all alcohol and grocery sampling.”

The Digital Shift

The return of in-store samplings would seem far off. Several retailers interviewed for this story suggested the end of July as a realistic point when sampling might begin again. However, that depends on the nature of the pandemic at that point.

In the meantime, many retailers have turned to virtual tastings to fill the void in marketing and sales.

“We have conducted nine virtual tastings in the past two months with our guests, featuring winemakers from various suppliers,” says Fisch. “We typically have between 75 and 100 guests participating in each virtual tasting. These have been received well, as it provides guests with a rare opportunity to taste wines along with myself and the winemaker who crafted the wine, allowing for vibrant Q&As throughout the events.”

The success of Gary’s with virtual content and ecommerce during this pandemic is indicative of an important truth right now in the industry. Companies already investing in technology have fared better than those caught flat-footed by the suddenness in which so much has turned digital.

“We were the first alcohol company in the state of Kentucky with digital delivery,” says Jonathan Blue, owner of the chain Liquor Barn. “During all this, it’s been wildly successful. Digital growth is suddenly seven-to-ten times what it was before, year-over-year.”

The COVID-19 crisis has seemingly sped up many digital trends already in place. What had appeared a decade out is suddenly the new norm.

“The convergence to digital is a complete shift in terms of what’s in the future,” Blue says. “People purchasing through our website or third-party apps like Drizly, that business has gone up drastically. Curbside pickup, which we had never done in the past, has also grown immensely.”

A social distancing sign at Happy Harry’s in Grand Forks, ND.

Agreeing with Blue is David Garfield, co-owner of Garfield’s Beverage Warehouse in Chicago.

“We’ve been working with Drizly since Day 1, and have long been working on our digital infrastructure,” says Garfield. “Most stores in Illinois were not as prepared. They didn’t see the growth in sales as the stores that had managed to prepare digitally.”

The question remains about what happens next. How will customers react as the pandemic (hopefully) winds down in the (hopefully) near future?

“I’ll be interested to see how many people are still going to shop online and want to use delivery and curbside options,” says Garfield. “Are people’s buying patterns going to change for the future? Or will they go back to normal?”

Praise for the Team

Like many other retailers, Garfield points an appreciate finger towards his staff, for how well they have handled the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.

“I want to praise my staff because they already had the infrastructure in place to handle this crisis,” he says.

It’s a refrain you hear from retailers across the country.

“I want to commend the staff,” says Jason Daniels, COO of the New York chain Half Time. “They’re essential workers. They’re happy to be working, but also out here in an environment that’s not the safest, and yet they’re ready to go, every day.”

Customers, too, have received positive marks for their own ability to adapt with these changing, challenging times.

“The customers have been so supportive in reading the signs and following the six-feet guidelines, being called up and wearing masks,” Daniels adds. “For both customers and staff, it’s not easy to have a mask on every day. It’s a change of norm. We haven’t loved it, but we all understand how important it is. It’s great to see everyone rallying together.”

Kyle Swartz is editor of StateWays magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz

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