When your brewery starts to package beer and you’re ready to send it beyond the taproom and into retail stores—regardless whether you decide to self-distribute or use a traditional wholesaler—it’s a part of the business that needs regular and careful attention. Getting that precious shelf space, especially in a market where your beer resonates, is a big win. Keeping it well-stocked and interesting is a real challenge. Ultimately it comes down to investing in your company in the right areas and using careful judgment at all times.
On the day four years ago that he opened Mill Creek Brewing Co. in Nolensville, Tennessee, Chris Going already had beer on the shelves of local stores and groceries. He achieved this by focusing on two critical things.
“The first was just focusing our attention on which wholesaler would work best for us. Who was going to be a partner with a big voice and the biggest seat at the table in our area? For that reason, we went with an A-B house,” Going says.
“The other piece we focused on was making the investment in ourselves. That means investing with retailers, whether it’s at the local liquor stores or major outlets with key buyers. We’re a small business, but we’re going to the meetings at the corporate headquarters of Publix or Kroger. We just got into Walmart, so we’re going to Bentonville, Arkansas, soon. We don’t go armed with the analytics that bigger companies have, but I’ve found that buyers, even on the national level, really appreciate the brands they are working with if you can provide them with a story and help them understand why your brand is important and can help them make money. It goes a long way.”
It’s not enough that you’ve made beer, the successful brewers say. Anyone who is going to stock your product needs to know that it will make them money and not just grow dusty on a shelf. That’s where the investment in people who work for your company, not just relying on the sales staff of a wholesaler, is critically important.
“You have to remember that we’re selling a luxury item,” says Kevin Lemp, president and cofounder of 4 Hands Brewing Co. in St. Louis, Missouri. “The beer has to taste great, and the packaging has to look great, but the relationship at the store level is critical for helping the beer get into a customer’s basket.”
Currently, Lemp’s brewery has four sales representatives in St. Louis for on- and off-premise accounts and two in Kansas City. In St. Louis, the top seventy-five retail accounts receive a monthly visit from reps, and the top fifteen to twenty get a visit at least once a week. He says it’s unrealistic for a brewery to think that a wholesaler is going to do all it takes to move product, especially when they are managing so many different brands. His staff goes in and rotates beer, builds displays, and works with the retailers on anything that will set them up for success and move beer out the door.
Lemp also encourages the sales reps to get to know more than just beer buyers. This is especially important when a brewery gets into a grocery store.
“I want them to know the meat manager, the deli manager, the people in the floral department,” he says. “Once a year when we release Contact High, our hoppy wheat with orange zest, I want a display case next to the fresh oranges because we know the produce manager.”
Two Different Markets
Knowing the difference between how things sell and work in your taproom and how they will be perceived on shelves is also critically important. Brewers in the retail space say that clear labeling and easily identifiable wording and logos are mandatory to help move the beer from the shelf.
There are a lot of artistic labels today, and if one is tied to, say, a brewery’s IPA and regular taproom customers know it by sight and are happy to pick it up, that’s great. But for retail customers who have limited time and a limited attention span, those graphic cans that don’t say what the beer is or who made it or offer any kind of descriptors are going to be a tough sell. Doing reconnaissance work, watching what customers gravitate toward, and then finding color schemes, fonts, and other design elements that will help your brewery both communicate the product well and grab attention are very important.
“You have to approach it as two separate things,” says Mill Creek’s Going. “In our taproom, our IPA is our best seller. On shelves, it’s our wheat. It’s two different sets of consumers, and you need to appeal to the ones that you have when you have them. It’s just how the beer industry is right now. There are so many of us, and we’re all sharing consumers. And as more people enter craft, the percentage of the pie we all have gets slimmer.”
Another way to gain more space and garner more attention is to offer different products, so many smaller brewers are getting into the canned cocktails, hard seltzers, or nonalcoholic offerings. Occupying more space in stores with a more diverse array of products can help your bottom line.
However, all of this—the packaging, the relationships, the diversity—isn’t going to mean anything unless you commit to having salespeople who are passionate about your company out there pounding the pavement each day, working to build relationships and sales.
Far and Near
It’s not uncommon for brewery owners to get frequent calls from out-of-state distributors asking for product. And the idea of your beer being available far from home and getting into the hands of happy customers can be exciting for many folks. Brewers who have walked this route caution on a few things.
The first is due diligence. Recently, there have been breweries that have taken to social media to complain about out-of-state distributorships that took orders of beers, presumably sold it, but then never paid the brewer. By the time this accounting issue comes to light, it’s usually compounded by similar complaints by other brewers. Doing detailed background checks beforehand can help save headaches later on. Also, if your brewery isn’t going to have a dedicated employee in a far-away market, don’t expect huge results. The best way to get sales is by having people who represent your brand on-site.
Early on, Going says, his brewery distributed out of state, but when they started looking deeper at the local market and going into newer places closer to home, it made more sense financially and logistically to pull out of those markets and concentrate sales efforts locally.
“I don’t think that you can really find success in another market without having someone telling your story and representing your brand,” he says. “That person can’t be the wholesaler. They just have too many other SKUs to deal with. So, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t have someone who is with you doing it for you.”
Then it’s up to that person, along with a sales director, to make sure that each retail account is happy and that each time customers walk into a store, they have a chance to interact with your brand. This can mean everything from in-store tastings to making sure there are seasonal or topical displays set up and that the retailer knows that they can rely on your brand for support when it’s needed.
“The easier you make it for the retailer, the more helpful you are, the more enthusiastic you are, it’s going to pay dividends,” says Lemp. “With so much choice, if it comes down to an off-premise account picking you for something versus someone else, they are always going to choose the one that is easier to work with and more responsive.”