“The highest proof we carry is 100-proof vodka, and people have been buying it, but we’re not recommending you make hand sanitizer out of that,” says Bruno, noting that the Center for Disease Control advises against it as well.
Bruno is one of many wine retailers whose core business has shifted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As consumers stock up on toilet paper and dried beans, they’ve also changed how they buy wine, beer and spirits.
To cater to this evolving market, some wine shops are doubling their staffs while bottles fly off shelves. Others are seeing transactions waning in tandem with foot traffic and tourism, forcing them to lay off employees or cut their hours.
No matter what the new circumstances are, many small business owners are struggling to adapt. They have to transform their operations every time nearby offices require their employees work from home, or when a governmental decree shutters all bars and restaurants.
But surprisingly, the news has not been all bad for retailers, so far. With more consumers staying indoors, digital retailers are doing brisk business. Last week, sales at national ecommerce site Wine.com were double what they were the year prior. They tripled last weekend.
“People are buying more bottles per order, and spending slightly less per bottle,” says Michael Osborn, founder and executive vice president of Wine.com. Inventory is fine, he says, with “plenty of wine in stock to satisfy this demand.”
Minibar, an alcohol ecommerce site that delivers bottles within the hour in 50 cities, told the New York Post its sales last Thursday were up 80% over the week prior. Drizly, another digital delivery service, had its largest day of the year on Sunday, surpassing even the holiday rushes on Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
Now, brick-and-mortar stores are expanding their delivery capabilities as well.
“We have always worked with local couriers and offered local delivery, but it hasn’t been a major part of our business,” says Stacey Gibson, partner and wine bar manager at Park Avenue Wines in Portland, OR. “My partner and I are going to meet this week to work out pricing to build it out.”
Gibson also aims to expand Park Avenue Wines’ ecommerce platform, which exists but has similarly never been a focus.
Meanwhile, in Tuckahoe, San Pietro has gone from making one or two daily deliveries to offering all-day delivery service. “Our drivers are putting in a lot of miles,” says Bruno.
Stores that don’t offer delivery are finding other ways to speak to consumers’ concerns. The Hawthorn Bottle Shop & Tasting Room in Helena, MT is taking orders by telephone and offering curbside pickup.
“Although only a small percentage of folks is taking us up on it, most have commented how happy they are to have the option,” says co-owner Jill Roberts.
Where wine shops are located is proving to be especially meaningful during the health crisis. Park Avenue Wines is situated in downtown Portland, an area usually frequented by tourists and local professionals (Google and Cigna have corporate offices there). Sales have declined with so many people working from home this week, says Gibson.
And, even in markets where consumers are currently buying bottles with abandon, wine shop owners can hardly rest on their laurels. Eric Goldstein, owner of NYC’s Park Avenue Liquor Shop, told The New York Times he can’t rely on such a mercurial market.
“These bursts of rushes and stock-ups, these are blips,” he says. “They’re exciting for a second and then you see the lull, and I feel like these lulls are going to get longer and longer.”
Some long for decisive legislative action to support the myriad businesses affected by the pandemic.
“Small businesses are such an important part of the American economy,” says Gibson. “When they are successful, they support their communities so much.”
For now, independent retailers are grateful for every phone call, delivery and purchase that comes in and allows them to keep doors open.
“Guests have been really good to the staff, tipping generously on bottle sales to go,” says Roberts. “Our community is incredibly giving.”