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Optimizing Beer Sales During a Pandemic—Online & On-Premise

Q: How do you increase sales despite stringent regulations for health and safety? A: Don’t think of your customers as monolithic. Instead, consider their different comfort levels, and what you can do to create compelling experiences for each.

Jamie Bogner Feb 5, 2021 - 12 min read

Optimizing Beer Sales During a Pandemic—Online & On-Premise Primary Image

Shutdowns and restrictions have pushed breweries into increasingly unfamiliar territory as they scramble to develop sales aptitudes not required in the past. Earlier in 2020, almost overnight, the pandemic forced breweries to quickly conjure up e-commerce operations and customer-facing digital sales and marketing operations while simultaneously reinventing their in-person brewery experience.

One of the bigger challenges inherent in this shift is maintaining standards around customer experience—but not without tackling that question that every brewery has to answer: Who are our customers?

Recent months have shown us that the answer to that question is multi-faceted, and that successful breweries don’t homogenize different customer types into a single idea of “the customer.” Today’s craft drinkers run the gamut in terms of age, comfort level, and safety expectations.

To optimize your brewery’s sales experience for each type of customer, it’s helpful to consider the needs of these different classes of customers—and how you can tailor an experience for one type that doesn’t infringe on expectations of another.

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The Customer Types

For insight into who customers are, we turn to Nancy Trigg, president of the point-of-sale software company Arryved, and John Kelley, CEO and cofounder of web-solutions provider Craftpeak. Both businesses focus on optimizing sales for breweries in different channels, but the experience of working with a variety of brewery clients has given them a wide perspective.

Recently, they released a collaborative report that suggests at least three basic customer types:

Audience 1: “These are the truly dedicated consumers who are likely extremely loyal to your taproom and are ready for things to go back to normal in the taproom.”

Audience 2: “These consumers are slightly more timid but ready to test the waters in the taproom. They may feel uncomfortable if safety guidelines are not clearly stated and enforced.”

Audience 3: “These consumers are not ready to venture out but still want a taste of the outside world. They likely want to order online and either have their order shipped to them or do curbside pickup.”

Designing experiences for each of these different customer comfort levels is paramount for breweries because, as Trigg says, “Not everyone is at the same comfort level, and you don’t want to be pigeonholing customers in one direction.”

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Practical Application

There are some baseline concerns that span every customer type—generally speaking, most customers want to see that your business pays attention to customer safety and health. Even those customers ready to sit down and drink a beer in your taproom want to know that you’re doing everything in your power to keep things hygienic and safe. Communicating that concern for customer safety starts before the visit, via a brewery’s social-media channels and website, and extends into physical experience at the brewery/taproom itself.

No matter what the comfort level of the customer, everyone is engaging in research ahead of visits to understand safety measures in place, new processes, reservation policies, restricted hours, product availability, and more. Casual drop-in customers who visit on a whim are far less typical than they were pre-COVID-19, so a brewery’s digital presence needs to put these new policies up front and center for potential guests. Weekly updates through social-media channels, such as Facebook and Instagram, and alert banners on websites are great ways to make these policies and procedures visible to potential customers while conveying a genuine concern for customer health.

“Put a date on there so you know when they’ve been updated,” Kelley says. “This is something that’s evolving rapidly, so your policies (and capacity limits) can get outdated pretty quick.”

Tone, however, is of the utmost importance, and how you say it is as important as what you say.

“People are coming for the experience,” Trigg says. “It’s really important that, in spite of all the rules you have to put in place, it continues to be a welcoming experience.”

As guests visit on-site, think about physical cues that imply welcome without a smile, since those smiles won’t be visible due to masks. Working in this environment, with these restrictions, is stressful for employees; it’s important that the first experience that a customer has with staff is a friendly and helpful one. Hosts can provide direction and explain new and evolving processes, and if properly trained, they can pay for themselves via extra to-go sales and repeat customer visits.

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“It’s super-important to set clear expectations,” Trigg says. “It’s important to do that inside the space, but also outside, so that people know what to expect.”

Training the staff to be cognizant of guests’ physical cues can be the difference between a positive and negative guest experience. For instance, staff should be aware when guests are leaning away or creating additional distance, and they can offer reassurance by taking a step back.

“Some of these things might seem obvious or intuitive to you,” Trigg says. “But they’re not going to be obvious or intuitive to everyone. So definitely make sure you talk about these things with your staff.”

Every brewery should be considering how to sell to-go beer to every customer who walks through the door, even if that customer is visiting for draft. Generally, the most effective way to drive the sale is for a server or host to offer it. The power of suggestion is strong, and many breweries have found as much as a 50 percent increase in to-go sales just by training the team to consistently suggest to-go beer.

“It will be longer between visits,” Trigg says. “You want to get those tab sizes up. People want your product, so make sure that’s easy and not complicated or hard for them to do. Think about where those things are in your taproom.”

A conveniently placed cooler near the entrance or prominent signage listing to-go options can create suggestions, but a host or server asking a customer what they liked and whether they’d like to take some home can prompt an unplanned to-go sale.

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Whether a customer is visiting only to purchase to-go beer or they’ve visited for a meal, touchless transactions are increasingly popular with both customers and breweries. Single-use menus are a bare minimum. Changing your service model from counter service (which generally results in customers moving around in the space too much for the comfort of other patrons) to runners fulfilling orders delivered to tables can add another level of comfort for otherwise unsure customers. Online ordering for on-premise consumption can be an effective way to implement that. If that’s not feasible with your current POS system, simple digital menus viewable on mobile devices give customers one less thing to touch while also allowing them to strategize around their experience before they arrive.

“You can use these tools and not decrease service,” Trigg says. “If you have a system that allows guests to start a tab on their phone, you can still approach those guests and ask them for another order. There’s a way to interact with your guests that creates that really amazing experience.”

Some guests, however, do not want that personal experience at all, preferring to minimize contact with other guests and staff as much as possible. For such customers, consider systems that allow them to communicate that desired distance, whether it’s signs on the table or notes when ordering. For especially sensitive guests, staff can postpone bussing their table until the guests have departed, to minimize contact.

It’s not possible to over-communicate in this day and age, and for breweries, it’s always better to repeat a message than to not communicate it properly.

“Messaging [should be] everywhere,” Trigg says. “Make it super clear how to order, where to order. And I can’t say it clearly enough—make it visual; people don’t read. Use pictures as much as possible and make it clear.”

Pandemic Purchasing Brings Out New Customers

One of the curious effects that breweries are noticing through the pandemic is new and different customers now buying from the brewery taproom. The reason for the behavioral change isn’t clear—maybe it’s the additional layer of safety that comes from ordering directly from a brewery that offers touchless curbside pickup, or maybe it’s local customers wanting to bypass other crowded retail locations and show their direct support for small businesses in the community. Regardless, breweries should expect and plan for customers who are not versed in the typical brewery sales flow.

“Quite a few client breweries are telling us that to-go volume is being driven by unfamiliar customers who they haven’t typically seen before, and it’s additional business,” Trigg says. “Breweries are finding that even when they open back up to on-premise service, a certain subset of customers are buying to-go only. And those buyers are often buying different styles. Every brewery has to ask itself, ‘Are we selling the same things online as we’re selling on-premise?’ rather than assuming it’s all the same.”

As more sales shift to this direct channel, it’s increasingly important for breweries to look at where those customers are coming from, evaluating the channels by which customers find the brewery and make purchase decisions. In the past, breweries spent significant marketing dollars on brand-building and high-touch programs such as hand sales or swag giveaways. Now, the advent of brewery-direct sales through digital storefronts opens new ways to understand customers and optimize return on investment for marketing spends.

“Am I getting most of my referral traffic to my store from Instagram?” asks Kelley. “Is it coming from Facebook? Is it coming from our newsletter? Where do I want to spend more marketing dollars to increase the sales velocity or conversions there?”

Drilling down deeper, are specific channels reaching specific types of customers, allowing you to tailor marketing messages in each channel? Understanding the behaviors and interests of different customer types can help you improve your return on investment—and to identify places where additional investment may offer outsized returns.

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