I had some great feedback from a few customers concerning the post I wrote about retail tastings. Most of the messages addressed how useful the tastings were for those looking to taste something before purchasing a bottle. Some said they definitely had bought a bottle after attending one of the events.
These are great points and they are the benefits from consumer tastings of which I am definitely aware.
My main point is that doing these types of events on a weekly basis or even bi-weekly basis has not seemed to spark much of a passion within our customer base, nor the brands themselves. The other issue has to do with consumer turnout.
If we schedule a Heaven Hill tasting, where the rep takes time out of their schedule to drive to Redwood City or San Francisco on a Wednesday evening, and we pour free Bourbon for the public, there needs to be at least 30 to 40 people there for the brand to feel this was a good use of their time. Most nights, however, we only get around ten to fifteen. However, this isn't because no one wants to come. It's because no one who doesn't live within a one-mile radius of the store can make it here during rush hour traffic on 101. Even if they could, is it really worth sitting for an hour in gridlock just to taste a few sips?
When no one shows up, the brands get disappointed. When they get disappointed they tend to not want to repeat that performance. That is, unless I'm willing to do something for them (like feature a product we don't carry and have no interest in carrying). A garden variety scenario might play out like this:
"Hi Bob. I've got Wednesday the 15th open to pour in the Redwood City store. Want to come by and do a public event?"
"Hmmm.....well....the last time we did this we didn't get that great of a turnout. Maybe if we could focus on the new white whiskey and flavored vodkas I could garner up some support from the brass. What do you think?"
"Well, those aren't products that we carry, nor are they things I think really interest the base of our consumers. Can we just focus on the main whiskies?"
"What if we do two whiskies and you bring in one of the vodkas as a compromise?"
This scenario totally sucks. These tastings are free. We're simply offering the brands a space to interact with customers. However, since we have no control over what is poured and legally can have nothing to do with the event itself, we have no say in what the brands actually bring or offer. Obviously, we can say "no" to the tasting if the lineup doesn't fit the bill, but the retailer has little control otherwise.
I have all kinds of crap bottles sitting in the back warehouse that I brought in to help motivate certain brands to come and pour. Yet, I'm scheduling events that few people can come to due to the weeknight time slot available. The point is: the "exciting" new CA law is practially worthless for a store like K&L unless we can do over-the-top, amazing spirits that motivate people to come. We can't keep that kind of schedule on a weekly basis, however.
Until I can get behind that bar, pour what I want, when I want, I don't see the point of doing this regularly. If I can get Lester Lopez to come pour Ardbeg, Frank Jakubka to pour Mount Gay, or Andrew Morrison to do the A.D. Rattray single casks, then YES we'll definitely invite them in. However, these guys can't be here every week. We can't always have the same brands in over and over again because it gets stale. Yet, my attempts to invite in new brands and have different types of tastings have drawn few attendees and very little support from most producers.
This isn't my fault, however. It's not their fault, either. And it's certainly not the fault of our customers. It's the result of a stupid law that doesn't allow enough wiggle room to actually do something interesting and rewarding. Either let me pour, let me choose the bottles, and let me open K&L stock, or allow liquor tastings to coincide with wine tastings so we can try do them on weekends when people can actually get here and taste.
Until that happens, I think we're better off doing these in-store tastings purely when someone interesting can come to the store who actually wants to be here. Those events are worth my time, their time, and your time as well.