Virginia ABC: The 2021 Overall Best Practices Award Winner

Despite significant changes over the years, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) has successfully maintained its position as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking beverage alcohol control states.

After receiving authority status in 2018, undergoing changes in leadership and board governance, and constructing a new headquarters and distribution center facility, the Virginia ABC also implemented several significant initiatives and projects. All this while helping its 395 retail stores navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The following are examples of just several new initiatives that illustrate why the Virginia ABC is our Overall Best Practices Award winner in 2021.

Launching a Sophisticated POS system

Virginia ABC knew a new POS system was essential to its ability to thrive. The previous system, which the authority used for almost 15 years, was sold to a third party several years ago, and eventually stopped receiving updates.

“The ability to keep our stores running efficiently is my core objective, and I couldn’t do it with an outdated system,” says Paul Williams, Chief Information Officer at Virginia ABC.

ABC spent two years developing a new solution in partnership with OmniPOS. The new POS piloted at three ABC stores in June 2020. By February 2021, it was in place at all retail locations.

The new system completely streamlines operations across ABC stores. It replaced all previous hardware, software, network connections and POS registers. The system features an intuitive touchscreen interface, and also allows retail staff to easily access data and other tools that help them better serve in-store customers.

The new system also features real-time sales data and inventory updates. The sleek, modern look enhances overall customer experience and gives all ABC stores a contemporary upgrade.

Plans to train ABC employees on the new POS shifted during the pandemic. Large, in-person trainings that had been planned at all store locations were scrapped. Instead, select regional trainers traveled to one of several stores to complete the training, and then conducted trainings for employees at their own store locations.

The simplicity of the user interface resulted in easier and shorter trainings for all staff.

In the coming months, ABC plans to further enhance the system by developing more targeted messages to customers and licensees through the POS pin pads. These messages may include add-on products or promotions related to the customer’s current choices, or renewal reminders for licensees.

In-Store Application, Scanning System

One of Virginia ABC’s most noteworthy accomplishments of the past year began as one of the authority’s largest pain points.

“When the pandemic hit, we had no process for curbside orders,” Williams says. “We needed to figure out a low-touch, low-contact option, and we needed to do it very quickly.”

Although plans to create a new application to be used with the new POS rollout had begun in December 2019, the authority expedited development and piloted it in April 2020. Dubbed PICKIT, the application assists store staff with picking and processing all types of online orders, including licensee, in-store pick-up, at-home shipping and curbside pickup.

ABC also implemented Zebra handheld mobile scanners in all stores, allowing staff to complete various store tasks and access functions from a mobile device. Employees can also access the PICKIT application from the registers or a back-office computer. The new scanners also make it easier for staff to answer customer questions from virtually anywhere on the sales floor. Each ABC store currently has a minimum of two Zebra scanners.

PICKIT allowed ABC to successfully launch new curbside and at-home delivery services. A second phase of the application rolled out in conjunction with the launch of ABC’s new POS system. New features included the ability to scan items in delivery trucks, and to scan and assemble licensee orders more easily and efficiently.

“Licensing orders can be a huge task,” says Jennifer Burke, Retail Operation Director at the Virginia ABC. “We will get requests for 175 bottles from a licensee that wants to pick them up in a couple of hours. Thanks to PICKIT, what used to be a long, multi-person job is now something that can be done much more quickly and by only one person.”

The new application and scanners have also enhanced productivity and efficiency across multiple operations. For example, annual store inventories — which previously took an average of 10 staff members eight hours to complete — can now be done by five staff members in only four hours.

Statewide Status Assessment

Education and prevention have always been primary focus areas for Virginia ABC. In recent years, the authority has made significant strides in methods targeting the college student population across the state.

In 2018, Governor Ralph Northam established the Virginia Higher Education Substance Use Advisory Committee (VHESUAC), coordinated by the ABC’s Education and Prevention Section. Committee members include representatives from various higher education institutions, as well as nine state agencies. The goal of VHESUAC is to create a supportive environment and culture for college students’ health and safety, and prevent student substance misuse across campuses throughout the commonwealth.

In December 2020, VHESUAC completed a five-year strategic plan based on the results of a statewide assessment. The assessment process took a year and a half to complete. It was funded by the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association and supported by Spurrier Group. The assessment yielded a strong sample size, with 29 of the state’s 65 higher education institutions participating.

Assessment participants were interviewed about current practices for substance-use education, as well as prevention and intervention efforts at public and private higher-education institutions. After this feedback was collected and analyzed, it provided context and direction for VHESUAC’s strategic plan.  

“This process really helped us understand where colleges and universities were coming from, and what additional support and resources they need,” says Katie Crumble, Education and Prevention Manager at Virginia ABC.

VHESUAC’s strategic plan is designed to assist all types of higher-education institutions across the state with preventing substance misuse and improving the reach of substance-use education programs on campus. Implementation plans are currently in process. The committee is currently focused on determining how to set up communication protocols and allocate necessary campus resources.

Cocktail Recipe Video Series

Shortly before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Virginia ABC launched plans for a new initiative designed to offer free, value-added content to consumers in a digital format. A video series featuring signature cocktails and recipes launched in mid-2020. It became a way to engage with consumers virtually during the pandemic.

Developed in-house with the expertise of talented local bartenders, each video features a new signature cocktail and outlines the different steps in the mixology process. New videos are created quarterly. They are promoted on ABC’s website and across social media channels. The cocktail recipes are also available in written form on the website.

“These videos are an ongoing feature that we tie into our other existing campaigns,” says Will Moore, Digital Web Manager at the Virginia ABC. “There’s also some overlap with our in-store promotions.”

The first cocktail to launch was the Sunny Disposition. Infused with mango, it’s described as “smooth, fruity, and sweet with a kick.” The Say Uncle cocktail honored Black History Month and the story of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, the first known African American master distiller, as it uses Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey. The Camellia Line signature cocktail was created in recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It uses Asian spirits and is named after the ferry that takes passengers from Japan to South Korea.

Along with the signature cocktail videos, four additional videos were created that focus on cocktail making tools and techniques, demonstrating how customers can make their favorite cocktails at home. The videos included best practices and tips for shaking, muddling, building and stirring, and giving customers a step-by-step guide to the process. ABC also produced a video on how to make a basic Old Fashioned to share the foundation of a classic cocktail recipe.

The video series was well received by customers across various platforms. ABC will continue the series and offer new signature cocktail recipes for the foreseeable future.

Holiday Marketing Campaigns

The holiday shopping season is of huge importance across the entire beverage alcohol industry, and among retailers in general. In 2020, the holiday season was very different from most. Due to the pandemic and related public health and safety guidelines, many people around the world opted not to gather in person with family and friends, instead focusing on virtual celebrations.

Virginia ABC decided to focus on that theme for its holiday campaign.

“We want people to be able to see themselves in our creative,” says John Shiffer, Director of Marketing and Merchandising with Virginia ABC. “The more people can relate to it, the more effective we are, so last year’s holiday campaign was very Zoom-focused.”

The campaign, named “A New Twist on Toasting,” ran during November and December of 2020 It highlighted people celebrating from afar and focused on gift-giving and cocktail recipes instead of in-store promotions and discounts. The campaign also drove people to ABC’s website for online ordering.

Several TV spots featured creative Zoom celebrations. ABC also debuted a new holiday signature cocktail video featuring a festive drink named You’re On Mute, which was promoted on social media and prominently featured on the website.

The campaign had wide reach across channels and was remarkably successful. Total ABC sales for the 2020 holiday shopping period increased by 9.6% from the previous year, and online sales for the 2020 holiday shopping period increased by 108.3%. The authority plans to build upon the success of last year’s campaign with this year’s theme, “Rekindle and Rejoice.”

Thanks to the efforts of Virginia ABC’s team, the authority is well positioned to continue its upward trajectory toward reaching even higher levels of success.

Melissa Sherwin is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist from Chicago, IL. Her work has appeared in Chicago’s Daily Herald newspaper, Time Out Chicago, Suburban Life newspapers, and various magazines. She is also the author of several children’s books. Follow her @MelissaNSherwin.


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