by Francois Steichen
Ten days ago, Governor Lamont ordered employees of non-essential businesses to work from home. The order contained a list of exceptions that includes wine and liquor stores.
For many in Greenwich, a visit to the local package store has become one of the few remaining pleasures in the new reality, even if it is a guilty one. Wine stores have become centers of grim festivity. The banter, half-baked opinion, and cheer that still comes with every bottle is now sandwiched between layers of anxiety and relief on entering and leaving the place.
Yet the package store undoubtedly offers an essential service for customers just getting accustomed to a new reality of reduced space, increased interaction, and new triggers.
In fact, the Coronavirus is a massive mixed blessing for the retail wine, beer and spirits industry. On the one hand, sales are at record levels for the month of March, an otherwise slow month in the industry. Retailers throughout Connecticut and the United States are comparing this to the Christmas season, when most stores make by far the largest proportion of their yearly sales. Much the same is expected in April. Stores have had to ramp up their ordering to satisfy customer demand.
In contrast to Christmas, Social Distancing is an open-ended season. Customers are buying cases instead of bottles, and they are return-buying faster than they normally would. This is not happening in Connecticut alone. One customer reports visiting Costco, Binney’s (the major package store in Chicago) and his favorite craft brewery during the past 10 days. Another customer re-supplied his kegerator. All this business was transacted online, with curbside pickup.
Current sales are not expected to be offset by lower sales once the Social Distancing period is over because customers will not have to get through their stock of unused wine, beer and spirits.
Another resident of Chicago reports that despite having to cancel a family event, his family consumed the three boxes of wine he bought for the event in about ten days, along with other liquor. This represents a “blistering pace for [him and his family].”
Distributors, for their part, are running out of items. They are making deliveries on Saturdays and Mondays. Special deliveries are normally necessary only at month’s-end or at the Holiday Season.
Employment is staying at stable levels in the industry. Some stores are even hiring.
These record sales – as short-term as they may prove to be – are massively important for the survival of the retail wine and spirits industry. The industry has been consolidating and trimming the fat for well over two decades. Progressive small stores have changed with the times to offer the best service and selection in the industry. But other Mom & Pops have not budged. Large-scale box stores do not offer service or true variety, but they take advantage of inarticulate regulation to slaughter small stores on price.
Add to that the 25% Tariffs of October, in response to the Airbus subsidies, which dramatically increased prices on imported wine. And while proposed 100% tariffs have not yet materialized, importers and retailers live with the anxiety of a sword of Damocles that could yet cause their businesses to fail.
But for now, business is booming.
François Steichen founded and owns Frenchy’s Wine Road, a Connecticut company that writes copy and content for the wine, spirits and cider industries.
He is a resident of Old Greenwich with 15 years’ experience in the Wine Industry. Francois started at Harry’s Wines in Fairfield; worked at Acker, Merrall and Condit, in New York, the oldest wine store in America. He is currently Manager at Post Wines & Spirits in Cos Cob.
Francois holds the WSET Diploma, the gold standard in wine education. At 10 years of age, Francois took his first – chaperoned – sip of a sparkling wine. The magic of fermentation and spontaneously-produced bubbles has never truly relinquished its hold on his curiosity since.