Staffing a Specialty Beverage Department

Carolee Colter
June 11th 2019

by Carolee Colter, Columinate (previously known as CDS Consulting Co-op)

For 20 years Sam Vandegrift has worked with wine and beer—from retail buyer to sommelier to wholesaler. Now he consults with independent retailers and co-ops to grow their specialty beverage sections to meet the needs of their customers.

Like other business sectors, the wine and beer business is going through a wave of consolidation. Independent Mom & Pop stores are phasing out as the second or third generation retires, and their kids don’t want to take over the business. As a result, local grocers have become the place to access beer and wine. Sam sees an opportunity for independent natural retailers to not only add value and convenience but offer a massive draw for diverse customers, old and new.

How do you staff a specialty beverage department? Ideally there is a full-time buyer supported by center store staff who are fully cross-trained in beer and wine. If you understaff your beer and wine section, you lose potential sales. Also consider that this is a department with high shrink—which adequate staffing can help prevent.

Furthermore, to restrict the department to just one beverage staff means the business won’t develop institutional knowledge when that person moves on. It also heightens the risk of injury when only person is left to handle the physically strenuous job of moving heavy wine and beer containers.

But there is a barrier to cross-training, a mystique about wine. Center store employees who confidently stock packaged grocery and bulk and dairy/frozen, hesitate to venture into the specialty beverage department. To develop center store staff to handle beer and wine, Sam recommends putting together written Standard Operating Procedures. In addition, he advocates for in-person training on how to build displays, read invoices and update prices. Plus people need training in proper lifting so they don’t throw their backs out.

How do you develop someone into a specialty beverage buyer? Many staff members start out mystified and even intimidated by the idea of “buying wine in an impactful, informed way,” as Sam puts it. “It’s a self-esteem problem with our own judgment.”

When hiring a buyer for beer and wine, look for curiosity, Sam advises. “Ask what they’re reading right now, or watching on Netflix.” Also look for people who are comfortable talking to the public, and can be both generous and humble in sharing what they know.

Beer and wineA strong sense of curiosity helps in staying on top of trends. For instance, while IPAs remain popular and craft beer sales are growing by double digits, many consumers seek beers with lower alcohol contents. The beer and wine buyer can lead customers to these trends.

For buyers who want to educate themselves, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast magazines offer an overview of the market plus loads of valuable content on their online sites. For truly engaged personnel, courses through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) take students from foundational topics through advanced industry analysis and tasting techniques. At several hundred dollars, these courses are a good value for an employee who has mastered the nuts and bolts of keeping the shelves full and wants to continue developing.

If your store is big enough, consider separate wine and beer buyers. Each can focus on their people, share duties for stocking and events plus provide another friendly face to guide customers towards what they want.

Regardless of the size of your beer and wine staff, you need a clear policy on wine tastings so that buyers can taste wine with their reps without running into conflict with the employee handbook. It’s not that you’re paying an employee to drink alcohol on the clock. Wine-tasting involves taking a sample and spitting it into a bucket. Other staff besides the wine buyer can be encouraged to participate in tastings, following the same procedure. That way they can answer customer questions and promote the products. As long you are consistent and fair in applying your policy, any employee of legal drinking age could taste wine. Sam stresses, “Curating selection through rigorous tastings sets excellent programs apart from the pack.”

Sam encourages independent natural retailers to expand, revamp and fully staff their beverage programs. Just as food co-ops and independents are known for high-quality and local food sourcing, Sam thinks extending this same approach to wine and beer will enhance your store’s reputation. “Excellence should drive your department. Remember who your shopper is. And above all, don’t take things too seriously; it’s only a tipple or two.”

Carolee Colter has been consulting for co-ops and independents in the natural foods industry for over 30 years. She’s been leading workshops at Provender for most of those years. As the leader of the HR Team of Columinate (previously known as CDS Consulting Co-op), she conducts employee surveys, supports co-op boards in hiring and compensating their general managers, and helps employers with job descriptions, pay scales and personnel policies. With Mark Mulcahy and Allen Seidner, for the past 18 years she’s co-led Rising Stars leadership seminars specifically for the natural industry.