The Politics of Selection & Personal Taste

You'd be surprised how seriously people can take the selection on our spirits shelves.  Like other people use bestseller lists or box office sales to validate their own personal taste, some people take comfort or offense by merely perusing the available bottles in our Redwood City store.  If their favorite gin is represented, then I get complimented on my fine job as spirits buyer.  However, if they don't spot their beloved product among our modest offering, then it can be as if I have personally insulted them - especially if I am confronted about it.  "Why don't you carry Bombay Sapphire?  Are you really too good for Bombay Sapphire?"  You would think that answering that question would be perfectly easy, but one must be wary because it is a path full of landmines, a veritable egg shell walk. Let me explain.

Customer service is maybe the most underrated art of all time.  Everyday that I think I am providing quality customer service is a another day that I realize I really have so much more to learn.  Your emotional state must be prevented from interfering in your interaction and the feelings of your customer must be your only focus.  "Sir, we don't carry Bombay Sapphire because we don't feel it is on the same level as the other gins we are offering."  WRONG!  The customer's taste has just been insulted and they are deeply offended.  "Sir, we don't carry Bombay Sapphire because we simply don't have the space to add it to our selection."  Somewhat well played, but this still might not satisfy the customer or make them feel any better about the fact that a major liquor store is not carrying their brand of gin.  In fact, it might make them uneasy and insecure that we'd rather carry a bunch of gins they've never heard of instead.  "Sir, we don't carry Bombay Sapphire because we cannot offer a lower price than Costco and we want to be able to offer you the best price on it."  This answer usually works the best, but it isn't foolproof because sometimes they'll end up saying, "Well, I guess I better start shopping at Costco instead." 

The truth of the matter is that all three of those responses are factual.  As the spirits buyer, it is impossible for me to remove my personal taste from what we do and do not offer in our spirits selection.  In fact, my personal taste is exactly what I am getting paid for - it is the fundamental aspect of my job.  When I'm buying spirits at my desk, I'm using my own opinion of products to select what we sell at K&L and shape our department towards a certain taste.  When I'm on the sales floor helping customers, however, I have to be careful.  If a customer asks me, the gin buyer, what my favorite gin is, then I simply give them an answer.  "Try the North Shore #11, it's a fantastic gin."  No sweat.  However, it's not so easy when the question is: "Bombay Sapphire is my favorite gin.  I see you don't carry it, so does that mean you don't like it?"  The honest answer to that question is: YES!  It's not so much that I don't like it, as it is I don't think it belongs in our store.  On our shelf right now are at least ten artisan, hand-crafted gins that, in my personal opinion, blow Bombay Sapphire out of the water.  I like supporting small companies and small distilleries that make really good gin, rather than carrying the usual commercial options.  I also feel that our selection should be different from Safeway or the liquor store on the corner, or else why would you come specifically here?  Regardless of whether I feel our store philosophy is innocuous or not, this explanation is not something I can say out loud in this moment.  To eschew it at this point would be insensitive and reek of condescension, smuggery, and elitism.  It would be enough to turn someone off from ever shopping with us again.  It would be bad customer service.  Instead, I must resort to option #3: Costco sells it for less than we do.

What we offer in our selection of spirits should never be used as a commentary on anyone's personal taste other than my own, but the politics of selection and personal taste are very tricky.  Sometimes people ask you a question, but they're not really looking for a truthful answer.  It's the liquor store version of "Does this dress make me look fat?" Being a good liquor buyer means considering more than just your own opinion, however.  It can also mean making people feel comfortable with their own.   

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll