Pre/Post Internet Retail
My generation is one of the last to truly understand what retail life was like before the internet—back before Doordash and Curbside when you had to actually go into the store, purchase your own products, and talk to the people who worked there. While you youngsters might think that all of us 35+ year olds enjoy all the perks of modern living (instant downloads, live customer service chat, free shipping and returns on Amazon), you'd be mistaken. While I use the many dynamic and inventive tools the internet provides me on a daily basis (and I'm thankful for them), there's a growing discontent among people my age and older about the effects that our cyber-purchasing habits are having on the physical brick and mortar reality; namely, that we're erasing the in-store experience from existence. While I know that there's an entire culture of people out there who think this is simply the evolution of business (and I wouldn't necessarily argue with them either), there's an even larger culture of people out there who find that idea very depressing. How do I know this? Because I've talked to thousands of these people over the last year.
We finished up the temperature-controlled locker room at our new San Francisco store last week. Adjacent to the sales floor, there's a side room where you as a customer can rent out a space to keep your wine safe and sound, in an environment conducive to slow and steady maturation no less. We know that living conditions in the city are more cramped than ever and not everyone has room for a wine cellar when they're cramming themselves into fifty square feet of space (let alone paying through the nose for that privilege). But as one customer asked me the other day, "So I just call you up, order the wine, and you guys put it in the locker for me?"
All of our lockers are self-serve. You've got your own lock, your own key, your own organizational strategies, etc. We're just there to check your ID, let you in, and let you out when you're all done. Why? Because we want you to actually come into the store and see us. You see, we still believe in the in-store experience despite the direction retail business in 2016 seems to be trending. That's not to say we don't believe in e-commerce, of course. K&L didn't get awarded "Best Wine Website" by the Wall Street Journal because we got lucky. We want our customers to purchase by any means necessary! But we also want to get to know you in person. We want you to peruse the aisles, touch the bottles with your own hands, and attend the weekend tastings when you can. Do you remember Tower Records? I do because I worked there from 2001 to 2003 on the corner of Castro and Market. Working there was like retail therapy. It felt exactly how Audrey Hepburn described Tiffany's in the eponymous film: "Nothing very bad could happen to you there." Being surrounded by thousands of albums, constantly unloading crates of new ones, organizing and alphabetizing jewel cases all afternoon—it was heaven. That's what we want K&L to feel like for wine and spirits geeks.
But Tower is gone now. Amoeba is all we have left. They're the last stalwart of that fading era.
We're somewhat fortunate in the wine business. Booze cannot be digitized, downloaded, or shipped freely throughout the country due to still-existent Prohibition-era interstate laws. That means you can still make money operating a wine store, unlike the other brick and mortar institutions that continue to crumble before our very eyes. I was talking to another customer in the store last week: "Do you remember bookstores? Do you remember when you could go to Macy's and they had everything you needed? Do you remember how happy that made you feel, to be able to hold the products in your hand and see them before you actually purchased them? You could still ask someone for help!"
"I just got chills," she said to me. "I really miss that."
"That's us!" I said to her. "We're still that place, and we just opened up this gigantic new store to make sure there will always be a place like that in San Francisco. You're not alone in that nostalgia."
And that's the long answer as to why our wine lockers will continue to remain self-serve only. For both practical and nostalgic reasons.