Wine salesman Pat Kelley has seen all sides of the industry, from growing grapes to working the floor of a major retailer. So he knows what he’s talking about when he tells you what it takes to succeed in this business. Here are five of his top tips:
Make sure the customer leaves happy.
“Customer service, customer service, customer service, that’s our mantra,” says Kelley, specialty brand manager at Spec’s, the Texas-based stores selling wines, spirits and fine foods.
That’s easier said than done, but it starts with giving the customer what she wants—even if she isn’t quite sure what that is—and making it clear you want to know how the experience went, good or bad.
“We want to be your consultant,” he explains.
Keeping customers happy at Spec’s is what Kelley does these days, but he got his start in the wine industry in a much different place, working with his father growing grapes in upstate New York.
The family grew varieties like Concord and Niagara, selling to industry heavyweights such as Canandaigua (now Constellation Brands.) They also had a front row seat as Coca-Cola bought into the industry, helping fuel an advertising push in the late ’70s that boosted wine’s profile in what was, at the time, a beer and spirits nation.
The “60 Minutes” program extolling the virtues of the wine-enhanced French diet didn’t hurt, either.
Then Coca-Cola got out of the wine business. Advertising waned and consumption shriveled. Suddenly, retailers and suppliers had to get creative to find ways to encourage responsible consumption.
That’s when Kelley’s second secret of success emerged:
Stay nimble and informed.
Wine producers and sellers worked hard, jazzing up product displays and keeping abreast of new trends, like white Zinfandel, which—love it or loathe it—“quite honestly saved the industry,” Kelley points out. “It gave the producers something to sell.”
Sweet wines had a history of enticing people into wine; Baby Boomers were big fans of Blue Nun and Black Tower, sweet German Rieslings. “We couldn’t get enough of those,” says Kelley.
Now there was a new generation who came for the white Zin and stayed for the Chablis and single varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. French Bordeaux, Burgundies, wines from Australia, Chile and Argentina also got a lift. Food and wine pairing got traction, turning wine with dinner from a special occasion thing to a weeknight routine. Americans still like to go all out on big days, though, especially for Thanksgiving and Easter, two of the biggest wine shopping occasions of the year.
Every silver lining has its cloud; one drawback to the white Zin craze was that innocent dry rosés got lumped into the pink-and-cheap category. But that stigma has started to evaporate in the last few years as rosé has experienced a renaissance in America.
Staying nimble isn’t so easy in an industry with notoriously slow response times. Want more grapes? Just buy some land, plant vines, and wait three or more years! Which leads to Tip Number Three:
Always have a Plan B.
Case in point: The 2004 movie “Sideways” slowed Merlot sales and energized a craze for Pinot Noir, specifically Pinot from California’s Central Coast region so lovingly depicted in the road-trip comedy. “All of a sudden, the space allocated to Pinot was too little—and the supply was not there,” Kelley recalls.
For smart retailers, the crunch turned into a teaching moment. “It was an opportunity to educate consumers. ‘We don’t have a lot of California Pinot here because they’re too busy growing new vineyards, but Burgundy has been doing this for centuries. Here, give this Burgundy a try.’”
Also, sometimes consumers want to talk about the packaging and a good retailer has to:
Have a vision that encompasses the whole transaction.
Get a bottle with a natural cork that’s been contaminated with a chemical known as TCA and “you lose the cork lottery, and that’s a shame,” says Kelley. Screw caps eliminate the taint problem but don’t “have that satisfying pop that a lot of people want, none of the romance.”
Kelly’s a fan of Nomacorc’s synthetic cork technology that allows for a carefully controlled amount of oxygen transfer, important to aging wine, but are free of the menace of cork taint.
Recycling is a concern for many Spec’s customers, and the company encourages customers to drop off used corks in collection boxes at its stores. Spec’s partners with Nomacorc, which works with charities to sort the corks and send them be ground up, sold, and made into new products. Spec’s donates their share of the proceeds to breast cancer research.
Of course, before a salesperson can discover a customer’s views on packaging or any other topic, she has to learn the knack of starting a conversation, which requires perhaps the most important selling skill:
Learn how to listen to what customers have to say.
At Spec’s, if someone wanders into the store looking a bit lost, the staff will start out with a simple “Can we help you find something?” That may get a “No,” but sometimes a rather uncertain “no.” So, they may follow up with, “What are you serving?” If the answer comes back as chicken or fish, they’ll likely suggest a white wine, fine-tuning suggestions by asking more questions. Does the customer like wine that’s sweet and fruity or dry with a touch of minerals? A little fruit but some mineral quality? Then maybe something from Italy will serve the purpose…
The conversation ends in a recommendation. “Based on what you’re telling me, I think this is going to be perfect for your dinner.”
Well, not quite the end of the conversation. That comes by way of inviting the customer to return and say how things went—no holds barred. If they’re 98 percent satisfied, Kelley wants to know what Spec’s could do to improve upon that remaining 2 percent.
That, he explains, is ultimately how you get to be someone’s trusted wine consultant.
“We’re pretty good at that,” he says. “We’re not perfect, but every single day we try to get better.”