Saturday, July 17, 2010

What Is The Best Way To Organize a Wine Store?

Most wine stores are set up in a similar fashion, with the wines separated by region/country and/or grape type. Sometimes they might also have sections for different wine types, such as sparkling wines and dessert wines. I find this type of set-up easy to navigate, and it allows me to zero in on the specific type of wine I might be seeking.

For a knowledgeable wine lover, I think this set-up works well, but what about the average consumer, someone who might only have limited wine knowledge? Does this type of organization cause problems for the average consumer? Is there a better way to organize a wine store?

The average consumer, if unfamiliar with the various wine regions, might only look at those areas which he knows something about. He might ignore certain countries and regions. He might not expand his taste horizons, sticking to the usual wines. Such a consumer might need help from the wine store staff, to get suggestions for other wines he might enjoy, based on his tastes.

To help these consumers, some wine stores organize their wines in a different way, generally by style or weight. This is intended to be more consumer friendly, to help them find similar wines to those they already enjoy. Though it generally still requires the assistance of the wine store staff, to help describe the system to their customers, as well as help them find the type of wines they want. Let me use a couple of new stores as examples of alternative wine organization.

First, The Urban Grape, a new wine store in Chestnut Hill, generally organizes their wines by weight, using a ten point system, 1 for the lightest wine to 10 for the heaviest wines. But they still separate their wines by a few categories as well, including whites, reds, rose, sparkling wine and Kosher. Within each category though, they still use their ten point system. The owners state this has worked out well for them and many customers have appreciated the system.

As the rating system is based on the owner's palate, customers may not always agree with his decisions. You might find a wine to be lighter or heavier than it is rated, though generally it should not be a significant difference. It might be beneficial for the store to hold some comparison tastings, showing the differences of the rated wines. For example, they could let customers taste five red wines, rated 4-8, showing how the wines get progressively heavier. There is also difficulty if you are seeking all of the wines of a specific grape or region. You must either look through all of the shelves, or get assistance from the staff. That would make it tougher and more time consuming if I were just seeking which Greek wines they carried.

Second, Pairings: Exploring Wine & Food is another relatively new wine store in Winchester and they only recently chosen to arrange their wines by style, in nine categories. This reminds me of the system that Best Cellars used to use, with categories like Fresh, Juicy & Soft Reds and Soft & Aromatic Whites. This is still a work in progress, and they have been considering customer input. So some of the details may change in the near future.

Within each category, they often stock the wines in alphabetical order, by name of the prominent grape. But, they also have tried to keep wines made from the same grape within the same category, even if a specific wine does not fit that category. For example, all of the Pinot Noirs are in the Smooth & Elegant category, even if they would be more appropriate in Fresh, Juicy & Soft Reds.

I don't think you can have it both ways. If you want to use the categories effectively, you should separate the same grape if warranted. They do separate Chardonnay, between the Unoaked and Oaked ones, so they could do the same with others. If a customer buys a Pinot from the Smooth & Elegant section, but it actually is a juicy, soft wine, will the cashier always know to ask the customer if that is what they wanted? Their system, like that of Urban Grape, also has a problem if a customer comes in seeking just wines from a certain wine region.

I am conflicted about these alternative methods of organization. I do see some issues with them but I also understand the reasons behind them. For the average wine consumer, these alternative methods may actually be better. But, for the more advanced wine lover, I am not sure they are that useful, and may actually cause more problems.

This could be due to a difference in how the average consumer as opposed to an advanced wine lover buys wine. The average consumer is usually buying wine for an immediate need, such as dinner or a party. They commonly will drink the wine they buy within 24 hours. So they are seeking a specific type of wine, maybe something to pair with a scallop dinner or a nice BBQ wine. It then makes sense for them to seek a wine by style or weight. For example, Pairings emphasizes food and wine pairing, so its category system assists in that goal.

When I go to a wine store, I am more there to seek out something interesting, but which I might not drink for weeks, or even months. I rarely go seeking a wine I need that evening. So I don't care so much about selecting a wine by weight or style, as I am not filling a specific need. I am more apt to be seeking something exotic from Greece or Israel that I will try in the near future. So, organizing wines by region is much more useful to me.

I realize though that there are far more average consumers than people like me. There is probably no optimal way to organize a wine store, all systems having their advantages and disadvantages. But, catering to the larger audience is probably a more financially beneficial system for a wine store. If the style/weight organizational system is more effective for the average consumer, then maybe it is the way to set up a wine store.

No matter how the wine store is organized though, it still is very important that the wine store staff be knowledgeable and capable of helping their customers find wines they might enjoy. They still have to explain how the store is organized, describing the details of any alternative system of organization. I think that maybe the nature and knowledge of your employees is more important than the actual method of organization. Their help, or lack thereof, to a customer, will affect your bottomline far more than how the wines are shelved. So wine store owners need to choose their staff with great care.

What do you think is the best way to organize a wine store?


Meghan@travelwinedine said...

I appreciate various different types of organization. I love the way that The Urban Grape is set up but also as you mentioned, staffed. I am certain that if you wanted a wine from a certain region they would find it.
As a travel buff, I do also enjoy stores set up by region, each one taking me on a little trip to a new place through the flavors of its wine. Luckily we have a variety of stores in the Boston area!

Richard Auffrey said...

Glad to hear that Urban Grape has decided to start a "progressive scale education series" in September on Monday nights. This will help people better understand how they have organized their store. Kudos to them.