Monday, March 22, 2010

New York State Liquor Store Association Is Failing Its Members - And One Way They Can Succeed

I was just talking to David Jackson, Twitter wine enthusiast, and sales Director at Hudson-Chatham (in the spirit of full disclosure, I work with David on a daily basis). He had gone to Viticulture 2010, and was coming back from the New York Wine Expo 2010. The liquor store/grocery bill was much on his mind.

Now, I was just reading Leon Adams’ famed history of wines in America, which was last edited in the late 1980s, and in it, he was writing about the grocery store bill that was being battled over even back then. And David said at the debate about the grocery store bill at Viticulture 2010, that some one quoted a newspaper article from the 1970s that also sounded like it was written just yesterday. In both articles, the same attitude prevailed – it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

David has his own twitter account, and I don’t want to steal David’s thunder. He has many opinions on the subject, but he said one thing that I agreed with – in this whole giant mess, the one thing has remained a constant – the liquor lobby has spent every last dime in a desperate fight to defeat, delay, and kill this bill at every possible moment. However, they have not spent one quarter of that money (not a tenth, maybe not even one hundredth) coming up with a plan to help their member stores prepare for the future.

There are fewer liquor stores today than there were five years ago. Restaurant sales are down. Wholesale sales of wine are down. What is the trade liquor group doing to help its constituents plan for the future? How are they preparing their members to inoculate themselves should the grocery store bill some day pass(and eventually it will)?

I will go on record that as of this writing, I do not think the bill is fair and equal. I’ve said it before. The state is not giving liquor store owners enough to work with to combat grocery stores on a level playing field, as they will indeed be fighting for their livelihoods (many of them any way). I think there needs to be more in the law for liquor store owners. If grocery stores can sell wine, why can’t liquor stores widen substantially the other items they are allowed to sell?

What the state liquor store association is not doing, however, is working on a plan that shows liquor store owners how to get along in the new word order, should it happen. It turns out, like in American national politics, scaring people to death is much more effective than teaching them how to move forward. Maybe the NYSLSA should have an amber alert, etc.

Where’s the planning ideas on how to rejigger your product selection? Where’s the information on what to buy with the new laws in place so that you can keep your store fresh and competitive? Where’s the ways to differentiate your self and selection from the grocery stores? What can a liquor store provide that a grocery store can’t, and how to promote yourself better, etc.? It’s certainly not on their website.

Scott Osborn will eventually get his way. As I’ve said before, he’s not wrong. And he won’t quit. What then? Where are the contingencies? Should the NYSLSA be showing their people how, now?

On top of this, I cannot tell you how many wine shops I walk into that don’t carry New York state wine. I’m lucky, in that, in Columbia County, NY, there are a dozen shops I know carry a decent selection of NY state wines. And I buy from them. I think those folks are great, and I know they care about sustainability and great wine. I know they are good people. But I’ve gone to a lot more that don’t carry NY state wines at all. The NYSLSA has come knocking on all our doors, begging us to help support them. And there are handfuls of quality wine shops that do stock a decent representation of New York wines. But I know that number is less than half. More than likely it’s less than one quarter, that support their local wineries. It is an outright shame.

There is no way that once the big grocery chains get the right to sell wine that they will carry the smaller New York state wines. Wegman’s for example, who sells wine in other states, will carry the same supply they do now, which is a decent representation. I give them kudos. In New Jersey they carried a half-dozen local New Jersey wines. That was more than I could say for a handful of independent wine shops in the local area. In New York it will be the same. The rest of the large stores will carry low priced, boxed wines, and cheap glutted, over runs from California and South America.

What will retailers do? I have one of the ways they can succeed. One of the things they can do is embrace their local New York state wineries. Local is everything these days….except in many liquor stores. Local is the buzzword of our times, right now. But walk into especially some of the poshest wine shops, and ask for New York state wine, and they look at you like you asked for ripple. Local wineries can support in-store tastings. The small wineries offer these kinds of marketing opportunities all the time. Local winemakers are always thrilled to come in and talk with your best costumers. The local wineries, unlike California and South America, want to be your partner. They want to help you. They’ll supply you with point of purchase material, and other promotional materials to help you sell your product better.

Talk to your local winery, and see if they don’t lunge at the chance. And partner up with your neighbor instead of some guy from out of town!