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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Retail Beer Marketing 102

I apologize for interrupting everyone's chain of thought. This is, after all, Holiday Ale Festival week. This tiny post is sandwiched between my HAF preview and the upcoming post-tasting report. I want to get this out before too much time passes.

On a junket to California for Thanksgiving, I was fortunate to spend a day visiting some prize beer destinations. More on those visitations in coming days...the Holiday Ale Festival is the current priority and focus.

Retail Beer Marketing 102: Defining the product

First off, let me say I think many retailers in Portland and Oregon do a pretty good job of marketing bottled (and canned) craft beer. This includes some of the better bottle shops (Belmont Station, Saraveza and Beermongers come to mind and there are certainly others), as well as the big box guys like Freddy Meyer, Whole Foods and New Seasons.

However, whilst I was in California I observed something I have not seen here in Portland. Actually, that's not quite true. I see it in Portland all the time...in the wine section at some grocery stores and in wine shops. The wine stewards post ratings from industry publications near great wines. What a novel idea!

This should be happening with beer here. Posting beer ratings from a respected publication like Beeradvocate is a terrific educational piece and marketing tool. Some people are stuck in the macro habit because they don't know what craft beer to buy. Help them out! Post ratings and style information.

If I were a beer steward or ran a bottle shop, I would seriously start posting beer ratings. Because putting great beer on the shelves isn't enough. There's more to be done. You obviously can't post for every beer without creating a mess in the display case. But it can be done. Enough said.



  1. I just posted a link to this over on New Seasons Facebook page.

  2. Cool. They should be on top of this.

  3. The problem with this is that there are tons of beers that are (or may be) perfect for a particular customer, but since they're not rare, sour, or barrel-aged they get shit on by the folks at Ratebeer or BA. Fruit beers are a perfect example of this; unless it's super tart, sour, or full of funk it's going to have a hard time scoring anything above 50. So, the customer either avoids those shelf tags with a score below 90, or if you choose to leave tags off a particular product because it's got less than stellar ratings they wonder why "that beer" doesn't have a shelf talker when all the others do.

    Now, since Wine Spectator's scale pretty much runs from 89-95 (only a slight exaggeration), any tag you put up is going to look pretty good to the average consumer. "Oh, that got a 90, and it's only $8? Let's try that..."

    Meanwhile, Ratebeer has a scale of 1-100. Since folks are used to seeing all the wine shelf talkers in the high 80's to low 90's, anything with a score below 85 automatically makes people wonder "what's wrong" with the beer.

    A perfect example is Ft George's 1811 Lager. We sold cases and cases of it this summer because it's a damn tasty lager in a pint can. Ratebeer gives it a 73, which instantly makes beer geeks skeptical, and probably would have negatively affected sales.

    Lastly, as you can see from your picture, the hanging tags obscure your view of the product on the shelf below the featured item, and it starts becoming messy (not to mention an information overload) when you have hundreds of tags scattered around. We used to have shelf tags on 200+ beers when we were in the original location next to the Horse Brass, and the shelves started looking like a ticker tape parade had gone by.

    Personally, I would much rather have an educated staff that can answer my questions, take cues from other beers I may enjoy, and point me towards something I'll like regardless of the ratings. If we have to have shelf talkers, I'd rather have something that details the color, style, prominent flavor notes, and possible food pairing ideas rather than a score that may just serve to needlessly bias someone.

    All of that said, I'm always open to new ideas for promoting new beers and educating customers, so keep these posts coming!


    ~Chris from Belmont Station

  4. Great points Chris!
    We don’t post wine ratings either at New Seasons Market. We’d rather have a one-on-one conversation with our customers. We like to listen to what they drink, what they’ve tried and didn’t like and what they like to splurge on then make a recommendation based on what’s in stock that day. Ratings are based on the tastebuds of some 3rd party who can’t be a part of the conversation and may have biases we aren't aware of (like advertising $$). Their comparisons are based on what products samples are sent to them – not necessarily the same products that are available to our stores. Small, start-up companies don’t have scores to post – so they would get overlooked in favor of big numbers given to nationally available products posting the biggest score they’ve earned. And what about product variation? Since beers aren’t vintage dated, a review gets as stale fast – the brewery could have tweaked their hop or malt recipe since the reviewer tasted the product.
    And I agree wholeheartedly about the "messiness".
    Anyone know of a good app that number-lovers can use?

    Toni Ketrenos
    New Seasons Market Beer & Wine Buyer

  5. A few comments:

    I think the shelf tag idea has far greater potential in grocery stores than in bottleshops. The clientele at Belmont Station is far more knowledgeable than the typical person browsing the beer section at Fred Meyer or New Seasons. Plus, there's always someone to help at Belmont Station. Is that the case at FM or NS?

    They did not have a zillion shelf tags at the store in Cali. Maybe half the beers in the craft area had review tags. It might have been less than that. It worked for me. I realize you can't put a tag on every single beer without creating a visual mess.

    There were using Beeradvocate reviews, which are based on a conglomeration of opinions. I don't buy the idea that you shouldn't post reviews because beers change or a review is based on someone's dysfunctional taste buds. You can't tell me that BA reviews are any less valuable than the advice given by an employee in a store. I've gotten plenty of marginal advice in specialty shops over the years. The reviews are a guide to help the uninformed with beer choices. That's it.

    Thanks for the feedback, folks!


  6. >Plus, there's always someone to help at Belmont Station. Is that the case at FM or NS?

    That's a valid point, at least w/r/t Freddies. I've usually had good luck finding a steward at NS, but then again I have a pretty good idea what's available and what I like so it's rare that I need to ask them for anything.

    >You can't tell me that BA reviews are any less valuable than the advice given by an employee in a store.

    Also a valid point. You're getting the aggregate opinion of hundreds of reviewers vs the opinion of the person in the store, both of which have the potential to guide someone or lead them astray.

    One problem in particular with relying on BA reviews (which Toni alluded to) is that beers do drift and change over time, but once a beer gets a critical mass of reviews it takes a long time for the score to budge. There are many beers I can think of that used to be world class, but have become lackluster or outright bad due to recipe changes, brewery expansions, or some other factors, but it takes hundreds of negative reviews to offset the 300 that came before it. There's also the issue of beers from the opposite side of the country that may taste incredible at the source, but once they spend 6-8 weeks in transit and who knows how long in a distributor's warehouse they're a faded shadow of what the brewer intended.

    On the flip side, I realize you can't put all your faith in the person in the store because they have their own limitations, flavor preferences, and personal biases. Case in point: I've had 95% (or more) of the beer in our store, but since I can't drink all 1,300 on a regular basis it's inevitable that the details get fuzzy on things I haven't had recently. I'm also not a fan of overly sweet beers, so if you asked my opinion on something like Creme Brulee it would be significantly less enthusiastic than the average reviewer.

    Now that I'm thinking about it, it seems the best way to utilize shelf tags in a specialty shop would be to highlight great stuff that may get overlooked. For example, if someone comes in and asks for some dry or Irish stouts I can rattle off all the standards, but there's always something like Moylan's Dragoon Stout (freaking awesome btw) that I forget about until the customer has left the store. In cases like that, a shelf tag could act as a visual reminder to the staff as we're scanning the coolers looking for suggestions, and serve as an educational tool in it's own right for customers who just happen to read it.

    Anyhow, I've rambled enough, and there's trucks full of beer pulling up, so I'll stop before this wall of text gets any longer.



  7. Great comments, Chris. Always appreciated. Thanks for stopping by.


Keep it civil, please.