The Story of Pliny the Elder and K&L (an Analogy)

The third and final installment on the Pappy Van Winkle issue we're currently facing:

For those of you who don't drink beer, let me enlighten you a bit into the brief history of Russian River Brewery, its wonderfully delicious Pliny the Elder beer, and the policy changes it has created here at K&L.  One day, a few friends in Santa Rosa decided to get together and start a brewery.  They focused on IPAs, sour beers, and eventually some interesting barrel-aged specimen as well.  Once the word got out on the Beer Advocate website about how amazing their Pliny the Elder IPA tasted, people all over the country began searching for it.  Because these beers are only available in California, almost exclusively in the San Francisco area, beer enthusiasts began swarming the area in search of this mega-hyped elixer. 

Because Russian River Brewery is a small production facility, there wasn't much of this Pliny the Elder to be found.  While the insatiable demand definitely opened the doors for a possible expansion, money wasn't driving the motives at this little brewery.  These friends enjoyed making beer together and increasing production would require all kinds of new staff, new equipment, and new infrastructure, turning this quaint beer-making process into a large-scale operation - exactly the opposite of what these guys originally wanted to do.  Despite the now frenzied demand for Pliny the Elder that beer drinkers were exhibiting, the Russian River guys decided to continue as planned and let the beer drinkers fight it out at their local beer retailer.  It was completely out of their hands at this point.  However, the harder it became to find it, the more people absolutely had to have it.

Enter K&L - from what I understand, recipients of perhaps the largest weekly allocation of Pliny the Elder.  Every Wednesday (or sometimes Thursday), K&L receives 300 bottles of the hottest beer in the U.S. and within one hour all of that beer sells out completely.  Because K&L sells its products online, customers can add something called the "waitlist feature" to their account.  By adding an item to their waitlist, the K&L system automatically sends the customer an email when the item they're seeking comes back into stock.  By clicking on a link directly in that email, the customer can reserve up to six bottles for pick up by purchasing them and selecting "Will Call" for in store pick-up.  With almost every customer choosing the maximum six bottle allocation, that allowed about fifty people per week to get their hands on Pliny the Elder - many times the same fifty from the previous week.  Some people had their roommate, mother, or girlfriend buy an additional six to find away around the bottle limit.  The Pliny sweepstakes had become too big to miss.

Once the word got out that K&L carried Pliny the Elder beer, people began coming into the store on a daily basis, scouring the beer section before finally coming to the counter and asking, "Don't you guys sell Pliny the Elder?"  The answer was yes, but unfortunately not at the moment.  "Can I reserve some right now from the next shipment?" No, but we can add you to the waitlist so that the next time it comes in, you'll receive an email that will allow you to do so.  Eventually more than 1000+ were added to that waitlist and the competition for Pliny became fierce - so intense that many customers became entirely frustrated with the process and swore to never drink the beer again.  Those who couldn't check their email frequently enough were upset that they were always late to the party.  Those who didn't use computers were outraged that they couldn't simply walk in and buy it.  "Do I have to always completely put my work aside in the middle of the day, wait by the computer, and hope that I'm fast enough just to get a bottle of stupid beer?!" No one was happy about the lack of supply.  Everyone was upset.  All over little Pliny the Elder.

In the end, however, no one received special treatment at K&L.  There were no insider beer customers getting bottles held back for them.  There were no secret ways to find access to Pliny the Elder.  Getting a bottle came down to the adoption of modern technology.  The demand for this beer had grown beyond the human customer service limit that K&L was able to offer.  Those who were used to asking for help from trusted staff members had to be turned away to the waitlist option.  The wonderful experience of coming into K&L and getting great booze and great service had become akin to shopping for Rolling Stones tickets on the release date at  First come, first served - no preference for any particular customer.  The fastest fingers win.

Today, we still sell Pliny the Elder in the same way.  Most have become used to the system in place.  Some still have nothing but contempt for it because it isn't convenient for them.  Now, imagine that same level of demand, that same situation, and even more of a frenzied desire for only six total bottles of whiskey that land twice a year, rather than once a week.  What is the best way to handle that situation?  Put them on the website and let them fly?  What happens when frequent customers who are used to excellent customer service and personal attention get turned over to an automated system that puts their fate in their own hands?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll