Crunching 2022's Numbers
Analyzing the 2022 holiday season's Lebanese wine sales at WHWC and the steps I took to get those bottles sold
During the year before I was hired as a part-time salesperson at WHWC, the shop sold 97 bottles of Lebanese wine - all Chateau Musar - and during the five years before I was hired, a grand total of 208 were sold. After discovering this data tool, I decided to monitor the sale of Lebanese wine after my arrival. It wasn’t just that I felt my presence would make a difference, it was also that, on my second day, I was encouraged to create a section of my own in the store. My silent goal for my first year was to sell 1000 bottles from various Lebanese producers I would introduce to the sales floor gradually. As of October, it was achieved - 1033 bottles of over 10 different producers were sold by the end of year 1. The top sellers with prices over $20 were all of Chateau Musar’s formats and vintages, Mersel Wine’s pet nats, Sept Winery’s Obeideh 2019, Chateau Belle-Vue’s Le Chateau 2011, and Domaine de Baal’s Rouge 2014 and 2016.
The next challenge was keeping that momentum going during my second holiday season at the wine shop. From October 10, 2022 to January 10, 2023, my goal was to sell 250 Lebanese bottles which is a conservative number given that this timeframe is the peak season for retail. Based on year 1’s monthly average of ~86 bottles, if the same momentum continued, the 3-month holiday total sold should’ve come close to 258 bottles.
286 Lebanese bottles of wine were sold.*
It did surpass the estimate and my goal so one could assume that momentum is going strong and, while I’m glad it wasn’t significantly less than expected, the total is lower than I’d secretly hoped for the holiday season. When I compare the total number to the other countries we sell (like that of France), Lebanon’s 286 seems negligible. I have to remember though, France is 50% of the store’s inventory while the other 50% is shared by ~15 other countries and I’ve sold more bottles in 3 months than the total sold in the 5 years before I joined. Lebanon now counts for 0.7% of the store’s inventory. It seems tiny but, for a store of this magnitude, it’s huge.
Factors that could’ve played a role in holiday sales
No marketing budget: The wine shop currently does not put effort into attracting new customers and relies completely on word-of-mouth. The business is dependent on retaining the existing customer base as new customers are mainly walk-ins, friends of customers, or brought in via popular wine search engines. After being in the business for over 40 years, their strengths are competitive pricing, nationwide shipping, and diverse inventory that’s constantly in flux.
The novelty has worn off: When I first started, the Lebanese bottles that I was sharing with customers were new territory for them. The existing customer base had never heard of the producers, the grapes, or the regions I was pitching. However, after a year of intro emails, I have to repitch the same bottles to the same group with a new spin. Survival of the section is being tested in Year 2 because it cannot be sustained on walk-in customers taking a chance on a $25 bottle, only to never be seen again. While new customer acquisition is important and can in itself accumulate, the section’s viability depends on repeat buyers of good wine from the Eastern Mediterranean. If customers continue to repeat-buy, it will be another cement block in the section’s staying power as it proves itself to be in demand and profitable.
Holidays are high-risk: Outside their everyday wine buying, purchases during the holidays have different purposes. During this season, people are looking to impress a host/boss or supply decent yet affordable alcohol for a party they’re hosting. Most customers play it safe and opt for established labels or bottles they’ve tried. Few are willing to take a chance on something unfamiliar unless they’re 1000% sure the recipient will appreciate it.
Email fatigue: We all experienced the deluge of marketing emails from e-commerce sales, collection launches, and holiday gift lists. The store also sends email offers on a new wine daily (sometimes twice daily). I noticed that as of the end of November, my targeted emails to existing customers were flatlining. People couldn’t keep up or they didn’t want to. Between vacations and end-of-year deadlines, no one had the bandwidth to claw through all of their inbox avalanches.
In-store/online placement: I’m grateful I was given the opportunity to build this section but the placement isn’t ideal. The spot that was available for my Ancient World was a quarter of a rack that was wedged in a corner, far away from the main thoroughfares. This area sees very little foot traffic and the surrounding countries are lower than Lebanon in holiday bottle sales. These lower performing countries are not easily visible online either. Lebanon is not listed in the drop-down More Regions menu but it is a filter once you start looking. Finding Lebanese wine on the website is accidental if the customer doesn’t go there looking for it - are the lower numbers due to their placement or is their placement due to their low demand? Port was moved to my rack to sit next to dry Portuguese wines so I lost more slots. Finally, the rack’s path is blocked by 2 forklifts (see below).
Inflation, bad weather, and *maybe* an economic recession: These are factors beyond our control but they have impact on shopping decisions. People aren’t necessarily spending less on wine but doing so less frequently. Disposable income is being spent on going out again as fear of the pandemic wanes but customers are more savvy to what it costs to drink well. Extreme cold weather and shipping delays may have discouraged orders from the East Coast.
What I did to mitigate these factors
Novelty and scarcity to pique interest: In late Spring 2022, I began sending a weekly email to customers who had previously purchased Lebanese or Greek wines as these are the two biggest subcategories within my Ancient Wine section. If they had taken a chance once, it was time to test if they’d do it again by catering to their curiosity and building a solid fanbase with a small segment of the mailing list.
At first, I emailed the same list (updating it each week so new customers were added) on the different Ancient World bottles that were already in-stock, highlighting one producer a week from a different country within my territory. Occasionally, I’d do a flash sale (knock off a dollar or two) or a focus on a grape (Assyrtiko from 3 different wineries). Once everything in store was covered, I introduced new SKUs I could source from local distributors 12 bottles (1 case) at a time. By rotating in new SKUs of Georgian, Armenian, or various Mediterranean bottlings, the category has stayed exciting for customers and I can test a SKU’s interest without committing to huge quantities that may not sell.
This strategy has been working but finding new SKUs is challenging because I’m in search of good wine from regions that don’t have a lot of representation. I’m not filling a quota or just settling on any random bottle that hasn’t been featured, I want to truly share a cool find with my mailing list.
Have you ever tried Lebanese wine?
Established myself as the source: I adopted the “Ancient World wine buyer” title pretty early on. By consistently emailing about Lebanese wine (and friends) and asking our new walk-ins and regulars “have you ever tried Lebanese wine?” as soon as I sensed a green light and then proceeding to give a Lebanon 101 crash course next to the rack, my name was linked with the category. It helps that I’ve been the only woman on the salesfloor for over a year so, by process of elimination, they knew that I was the one emailing about the Ancient World/Mediterranean wine. I’ve received emails from customers who not only wanted recommendations for Lebanese wine but also for a visit to Beirut. By making it clear that I was informed on a personal level, customers had access to expertise that’s rare in U.S. wine retail.
Merchandising: As a part-time employee, I always need to be sure that these bottles are visibile when I’m not around to shepherd people to the rack. As more spaces were lost to Port, I lined up cases of different SKUs on the floorspace in front of the rack instead of doubling their placement and I moved white wines to the high-traffic fridges that face the even higher-traffic Champagne rack. There, they had more visibility and they were viewed as just another white wine until the customer took a closer look. Double placements of less bottles might have resulted in more sales because of more chances of being seen and reduced choice but I prioritized variety and thus, I had to be smart with the space available to me.
Can I take all the credit for these numbers?
No. I didn’t sell every single one of the 272 bottles alone. However, there is a spike in Lebanese wine sales on the days I’m on duty, the bottles are there because I’ve brought them in, and my colleagues can speak to them because I’ve taught and tasted them on almost every bottle. I’m proud of what I’ve done to foster a fanclub from one store in Southern California but I still don’t know if it will outlive my leadership. Will the section outlive my employment?
We’ll have to wait and see but until then, do you want to help me ask the question?
*First published as 272 bottles - January 10th, 2023 is a Tuesday and I don’t work on Tuesdays but I assumed the total wouldn’t change much, if at all. I was wrong. On the final Tuesday,
14 bottles of Chteau Musar Blanc sold because of a mass email offer I wrote earlier that week.
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