Online management tools have brought convenience to many industries. The opportunity to simply drop wanted items into a cart, pay, and then pick them up or have them delivered is available on everything from groceries to clothing to appliances, cars, and even wine. It’s been slow to come to beer, however.
In part, this is because of state-by-state restrictions. But, it’s also because up until relatively recently, beer has been an at-home or at-the-bar experience that required in-person purchases. We’ve seen the rise of mail-order subscription services such as Tavour, and there are certainly online groups that can help fulfill a beer desire—for the right price.
However, if you’re an individual brewery that offers multiple releases and/or has a membership club, you need a seamless platform that can help get customers what they want in an orderly and easy fashion. Some breweries have come to rely on companies that specialize in tickets, such as Brown Paper Tickets or Eventbrite, when it comes to occasional or special beer releases. This is relatively straightforward. A customer buys a ticket to a festival or event and gets a beer in return. It’s a one-day transaction between anyone who is interested and a brewery.
Meeting Specific Needs
But managing sales of a sought-after, limited-quantity beer is more difficult, and there are pitfalls—something Adam Martinez, the director of media and marketing for Port Brewing, The Lost Abbey, and The Hop Concept knows all too well. A few years back, there were multiple hiccups when it came to the online release of The Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze. An apology and explanation still live on the brewery’s website. From that experience and every other successful release over the years, Martinez has learned, adapted, and created a management system that is as user friendly on the front end as it is easy to use on the back end.
“We’ve seen the ticket vendors get into it lately, but because they are ticket brokers, they don’t necessarily have the ability to keep track of inventory or vintage selections, but they are working toward that, and they see the value in working with brewers on that. Right now, to me, no one has locked it down, but companies such as Brown Paper Tickets and Eventbrite have the server capacity, and that’s huge. So I hope there will be more options coming down the road.”
Since Martinez manages both a robust bottle club and special releases, most of the time he relies on a software tool from HighJump Software that has long been used by wine clubs. Over the years of managing the programs, he has been able to add special tools to his back end to make the software as tailored to his needs a possible. It includes everything from remembering to add sales tax on a sale to a countdown clock once someone puts a bottle in their cart (similar to the way ticket sites do business) so that the inventory is consistent with real-time online users.
“It comes down to working with a vendor to make sure that your specific needs are met,” Martinez says.
Where Beer Needs to Head
The need for a platform where the brewers can keep track of inventory and ensure that customers are well stocked was the problem that Eric Thelen, the founder of CraftCellr, saw and to which he wanted to offer a solution. He had previously started a mobile ticketing company that was eventually sold to a larger company, and “we got bored and started looking for a new problem to solve. I’m a craft-beer nerd so this just made sense.”
Thelen is based in Atlanta, and following legislative changes that allowed breweries to expand and offer beer to more people, he and his partners got to work on a management tool that would help the breweries keep track of inventory while allowing customers to have one site that would manage all of their different brewery memberships, perks and all.
“The recent evolution of beer has been huge for breweries,” he says. “Selling out of a taproom means higher margins, and this has shifted the business model. Some breweries are essentially getting rid of traditional distribution altogether, but that’s not always an easy thing to manage. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Adding a digital platform for sales has many benefits, says Thelen. It maximizes revenue, and it increases the customer experience because there is already an expectation that online shopping is going to be convenient.
His company went live last December with Monday Night Brewing (Atlanta, Georgia) as its first customer. They have added several more breweries since then. One perk to CraftCellr is that if users are members of multiple membership clubs that use the platform, the clubs are all linked on a personal account. It also allows users to search other breweries for special releases.
“If you’re on vacation out of state or passing through and want a chance to get something special from a brewery, you can get access,” he says. “This is an opportunity to get a beer that might not be hitting distribution.”
Breweries have the option of allowing customers to pay in person at pick-up or with a credit card in advance or to turn on a proxy allowance.
“This is where beer needs to head. A lot of rules and regulations can hang up breweries, but they should be allowed to operate like wineries and ship wherever. If we want to get to that vision and place, we need to start somewhere. So our hope and goal are that this becomes the norm for consumers,” Thelen says.
Back to the Future
In this digital age where everything continues to move forward with technology, Martinez of the Lost Abbey admits that the brewery has been thinking old-school analog for future releases. He says that in the previous years, the pick-up rate from online bottle sales was about 96 percent on a release day. The rest might forget or have a conflict and then show up a few days later. These days, the pick-up rate is about 80 percent.
“People buy things online and then maybe just forget that it’s not being shipped to their door,” he says. “We reach out to remind them, and they say they’ll be over in a day or so, but sometimes it’s a month or more. Then I have bottles sitting in my warehouse collecting dust.”
The alternative is to go back to the days before Internet sales and just have a day of first-come first-serve bottle release with the line starting when the release starts and the folks who are truly into the beer getting a crack at getting one.
State Laws Complicate Online Beer Sales
Welcome to the on-demand age, where consumers—for better or worse—are used to the idea that they ought to be able to get what they want, when they want it, assuming they have the money and an Internet connection.
Setting aside the question of whether that’s a healthy way to view the world, it does present sales opportunities for breweries—if you are lucky enough to be in the relatively small number of states where it’s legal.
Widely variable state laws frustrate the deceptively simple idea that breweries ought to be able to ship fresh beer directly to thirsty people.
The differences in rules from state to state are not cut-and-dried, but the scattershot reach of a nationally active retailer is instructive. According to Liquorama, an online store based in Upland, California, there are five states where it can ship no alcoholic drinks: Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin. In six other states—Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Virginia—it depends on the locality.
Then there are another 26 states that only allow the shipping of wine—but not beer. Those states are Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
That leaves only 23 states in which beer might be sold and shipped by an online retailer—but not necessarily a brewery, since other laws (like those that preserve the three-tier system) can get in the way of direct sales. Bear in mind that these laws also can change from year to year, in one direction or another, so that states may jump categories as laws become more or less restrictive.
Why has wine had a relatively easier time at this?
“The wine industry has been working on the direct shipping issue for many years,” says Pete Johnson, the state and regulatory affairs officer at the Brewers Association.
For the beer industry, on the other hand, “it didn’t make much sense years ago, before the advent of specialty beers in large format bottles, to consider shipping a heavy case of beer across the country when that case sold for only $20–25,” says Johnson. “The economics just weren’t there like they were for wine, so wine’s been at it for a long time.” —Joe Stange