Successful Wine Merchandising

Having spent a good part of my career in sales, there’s an old adage that still rings true to me: Nothing sells itself. The actual product you offer guests is often less important in generating results than the effort put into its presentation. Whether you invest in a first-class wine program for your bar with stellar selections, great pricing, beautiful synergies with your culinary offerings and a catchy menu design, or you decide to shoot for something serviceable but much more basic, the same principles apply: Impressive sales flow from your staff’s strong level of consistent enthusiasm.

Any bar or nightclub that wants to succeed in merchandising wine should certainly follow the basics (good selection; clear, readable menus in an attractive format; visuals that show off the highlighted wines from a distance), but it’s the human touch that really counts. Bartenders and other service personnel are entertainers. Think of the materials you provide for them as props; they’re of little value unless they’re used, and they won’t be used effectively or confidently without training.

In designing a training program, it should challenge your team to learn, but it shouldn’t provide so much complexity that they lose motivation. First, define your points of differentiation from the competition. If you haven’t defined them, your staff won’t be able to maximize their opportunities or articulate them better than you can.

Next up: the menu. If you have a wine-knowledgeable staff, you can be a bit more adventurous, but in my experience, it’s best to put together a clear and concise menu that covers the basics but does not appear cluttered or overly ambitious. What’s the appropriate number of selections? Every operation is different, but your staff needs to be able to describe and recommend each wine; if they can’t, you have too many.

Since people buy with their eyes, it’s important to back up what your menu offers with appealing displays that feature the labels. Large format bottles strategically placed on the back bar graphically state your commitment. The best option is a wine display unit that dispenses the product as well as creates buzz. The Cruvinet, Le Verre de Vin or the Enomatic are amazing, if expensive, merchandising pieces. If you want to carry upscale wines, train your staff to operate these systems and to discuss with guests how the machines preserve quality, and the price may be worth your while.

Next, discover the motivation. Wine is cool, customers are excited about it and if your team buys in, they will satisfy this segment of your potential guest base and potentially expand it. Just bear in mind that nothing sells itself. So how do you execute a training program that builds confidence, gets your team members excited and has them talking wine? By teaching them some basics and getting them comfortable handling their props.

Bring in pros if you don’t have one on staff (distributors or suppliers are logical and free resources to draw upon) who can patiently explain to your team what’s on the menu and how to pronounce the names. Show the team how you want them to handle the point of sale material, how to pick it up and point out various choices, how to offer alternatives and how to say enough but not too much about the ones they’re recommending. Convince your team that they don’t need to become an expert, they just have to practice a vocabulary and know some of the key contrasting characteristics of the various glasses you offer. If you serve food at the bar, everybody should feel comfortable recommending a few different wines with your most popular culinary items.

If all else fails, a winning personality can carry the day. This reminds me of the restaurant I visited on an afternoon in Florida last year when I had a few hours to kill prior to leaving for the airport. The menu listed, to my surprise, a German Grauburgunder, which I thought was an intriguing and unusual choice. I asked the bartender, “What’s this taste like?” There was a moment’s hesitation, after which he smiled and energetically said: “Great question! Why don’t we try it?” He poured me a taste; it was delicious and it made an impression. That’s using your props.

Remember: if your goal is to get customers excited enough about wine that it becomes a profit center, you have to get your staff excited. No matter how great the materials you produce, no matter how compelling the visuals, if there’s no enthusiasm in the way they’re presented, you’re defeating your purpose because, truly, nothing sells itself! NCB


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