Popular retailer shares tips for extending your brand's reach and building customer loyalty.
When Kate Baker and I opened Craft Beer Center at our flagship location in Belmont Center in Belmont, Massachusetts, more than four years ago, the landscape was quite different for us and for breweries and cideries. Heck, with less than a handful scattered throughout the region, the idea of a “bottle shop” was still a novelty to the New England market. Even more exciting is our franchise as it continues to grow. We have 15 stores open and operating, plus another 17 in the planning process.
How did we get here? Over time we've developed our own hypotheses about branding, pricing, quality, and support from brewers and cider makers and from wholesalers and distributors. In this article, I describe these ideas and show you how to successfully deal with retail decisions and issues. I believe that these experiences will apply across the market.
It’s important to note that while Kate and I are the cofounders of Craft Beer Cellar, we only own one store, the flagship location in Belmont. We don’t order for any of the stores, but we do offer our assistance and opinion to the head Shop Keeps in all the stores. We are a close group and they are like family. We are most likely to share a beer or cider at a local restaurant, before either of us decide to shelf it — we’re craft geeks. We want to be able to tell a brew/cider makers story and the best place to start is to understand the product.
Branding Brings Loyalty
Branding is such an enormous piece of retail marketing. In fact, it can be as important as the product inside the package. If you can get a potential customer to buy it once because of the way it looks, and what is inside knocks their socks off, you'll have a customer for life. I see it all time — customers become loyal and purchase your product, over and over again. But, it must look good. Funny thing is, we all have wildly varying opinions of what looks good, so it’s getting crazy out there. Branding is about the name as much as it is about the look, which further complicates things. This is not a new challenge in the consumer world, I’m afraid, but it is important!
I can’t imagine the time, energy, and market research that cideries and breweries spend trying to figure out how to package their products. Cans, small bottles, large bottles, swing top, cork & cage, 4-packs, enclosed 6-pack cans, caps, crowns, etc., and I suspect I’ve just scraped the surface. It matters, and those that have spent time on it typically bring stunning products to the market. A stunning product means that you’re going to catch a potential consumer’s eye, even if there isn’t someone around to point it out. If something is amazing but the packaging is terrible, we're likely to stock it and stand behind it, although we'll tell customers to "try not to focus on the name or label, the product is fantastic!"
Customers ask me all the time why something from a regional brewer on the West Coast is priced slightly less than something from a smaller New England brewer. I am happy to help educate our shared customer about size and pricing. It only takes a little explaining to get someone to understand that larger scale operations have the ability to bring their products to the market in larger quantities, therefore reducing costs. Sometimes, even after factoring in shipment across the country, these brewers can still keep their prices down and hit the shelf at a lower price.
Price is and should also be reflective of both the quality of the product and what the market will bear. We can all think of examples where products may seem expensive, but because the quality is out-of-this-world, consumers will pay for it. The challenge is when a product is not amazing, but carries a mind-altering shelf price. These are the products that don’t have staying power. Some may hang on longer than others because they have large circles of friends and family that will stump for and buy their product, but eventually, these inferior products will slide away.
There is not a day that goes by that we don’t spend a good amount of energy steering consumers away from the “cheap beer” and “cheap cider” ladder. Twenty, thirty, even forty years ago beer was cheap or cheaper because consumers had become extremely comfortable with a product that was mass-produced and inexpensive to make. Today, however, this is not the case. We are fortunate to have access to some of the most amazing products that this country has ever made, and the raw ingredients for those products are not cheap. Let your great distributors, sales people, and retail stores worry about this conversation, you focus on creating an amazing product.
How do you keep from being one of those long lost brands in a reputable bottle shop? Make amazing products. Don’t cut corners. From ingredients to process, equipment, time, and people — put everything you can into your product and your customers will notice. If you make it and it’s amazing — they will come!
Support — Help Us Help You
Before you can expect anyone to tell your story, you have to tell your story, over and over again, until the whole world has heard it, or at least your microcosmic market. Trust me when I say that I (we) want to tell the world about your beer, cider, brewery, etc., especially if it looks and tastes delicious. But we can’t do that if we don’t know about you. The more we know, the better and the longer the story gets, and the more engaged the customer is with your brand.
In our store, if a craft brew that wasn't mass-marketed had qualities we could stand behind, it won a slot on our shelf. We started with 350 different beers and ciders and hit our all-time high last July with around 1,200. At that point, we decided that we needed to be more particular about the products we carry. Learning more about each product helped us make those hard choices. Get out in your market and talk to your retail accounts. Spend time with us, because if we can’t tell your story, you may be doomed.
Today, the number of beers and ciders in our store hovers around 750, which we are thrilled about. We feel connected to every beer, every brewery, and every cider maker, and we know that the products we sell are those that we believe in and want to support because their product is amazing! We take the time to tell their stories, talk about their farms, their raw ingredients, their (sometimes) crazy processes, their equipment, and their weather challenges.
Keep in mind that even if others are talking about your wares, your fans still want to see and hear from you. We have a long line of devoted customers that trust us and our recommendation, but at some point, they want to meet the cider or beer maker. Think about other ways you can communicate with your consumers and your retail and distributor channels, such as a blog or web site. I know this is how I get some of my up-to-the-minute information about our industry.
Get On the Shelf
As you develop your marketing and retail plan, be sure to keep these thoughts high on your list:
- Make sure your brand is strong and showcases your product.
- Set your prices with consideration for your costs, plus what the market will bear.
- Keep to the highest quality standards possible.
- Tell your story. We want to be able to tell customers more about your product and about you, so talk to your retail and distributor partners. Use that story to gain loyal customers.