Customers and wine merchants are locked in an intricate dance where trends set the tune and brands keep the rhythm. But who leads and who follows?

 The digital world has empowered shoppers to make more informed – and more impulsive – purchases. Wine buyers and merchants have had to adapt to a new kind of relationship with their customers. In a recent blog post at heinonwine.com, La Motte CEO Hein Koegelenberg writes, “More than being right, today’s customer is also your business partner, your strategist and your mentor.”

The effects of digital migration, where customers are moving online for their everyday needs, can be negotiated in various ways, but it can no longer be ignored.

Traditional

Some brick-and-mortar wine shops such as Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar have built up their businesses the old-fashioned way: through time and experience. They’ve carved out a niche as personalised wine merchants by carefully curating a selection that appeals to their audience. Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar owner Caroline Rillema for instance specialises in fine wines imported from all over the world. She relies on her extensive experience in the wine, retail and hospitality industries to home in on what her customers want and how best to present it to them. Her customers prefer this personal touch and trust her judgment. “A certain group buys from us because we do what we do, according to our taste,” she says.

Like other boutique sellers, Caroline has found a balance between an offline and online presence. “We keep up to date on a daily basis with what’s interesting, good and exciting, and we pass that on to customers through newsletters and our website,” she says.

Because of their localised audience and personalised approach, these specialty stores are to some extent buffered against sudden shifts in the market. The short line of communication between customers and sellers helps keep them synchronised. “Their buying patterns influence ours in turn,” Caroline says.

It’s a partnership that works. Caroline recognises that customers find convenience online, which compels her stores to up their ante. “Petrol is expensive. We always have to have exciting offerings and shops crammed with an amazing selection so it really is worth coming to see us in our stores.”

Cyber-savvy

Other merchants have dived into the online retail environment headfirst. “Believe it or not, South Africans have been purchasing wine online for over 20 years,” Cybercellar marketing manager Leanne Beattie says. “Cybercellar was established in 1998 so it’s been there since the very beginning. Consumers today have much greater immediate access to information than 10 years ago, which in turn leads to better-informed customers.”

But this doesn’t mean merchants can sit back and relax. On the contrary, their responsibility has increased. “With so many wines to choose from, one of our main goals is to help customers explore our wide range of wines, whether they know what they want or not,” Leanne says.

To be their customers’ best guides, retailers must remain one step ahead. “We spend a great deal of energy examining trends and data to provide the best possible selection for our customers, which in turn often helps guide our customers towards new discoveries,” Leanne says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Make the connection

Maintaining a relationship with your customers in the digital world requires a sense of adventure. “It’s important to take customers on the journey with you,” Leanne says. “You may initially engage with them through social media or an in-store ad, but it’s up to the retailer to constantly think of innovative ways to keep them engaged.”

Customers remain loyal to certain retailers for mainly two reasons: because they get a price or product they can’t find elsewhere and/or because of an emotional connection. “Engaged customers buy from you more often and also trust you to advise them on the right wine purchases.”

But what do they want?

Award-winning wines always garner more interest, Leanne says, and customers are becoming more knowledgeable about these wines and their accolades. A good retailer knows which awards appeal to their customers at the brand, cultivar and price intersection.

Leanne warns against following trends blindly. “First determine whether there’s demand from your customer base. If rosé wines are trending but the majority of your customers are men who are not into pink drinks, then it’s probably best not to buy into that trend.”

Pressure from all sides

It’s not only customers who put pressure on online retailers. With the proliferation of online price comparison sites such as PriceCheck, competition is stiff among retailers who provide similar services. Building and maintaining your customers’ trust is more important than ever. Leanne says Cybercellar has a simple philosophy. “Become transparent,” she says. “Customers know when you’re trying to fool them. It’s up to the retailer to build trust with their loyal customers and reward them appropriately.”

Advice well taken

While Cybercellar relies on customers to generate positive recommendations by rewarding returning customers with competitions, wine information packs, deals and discounts, Leanne says they’re also keenly interested in obtaining feedback. It’s almost a case study on how a customer can be a valuable business partner.

“Customer feedback is what prompted us to change our entire operation from an in-stock-only method in January,” she says. “We weren’t transparent in showing whether wine was in stock or not before. Now a customer can see exactly what we have in stock. We are already seeing positive results in delivery times. We have also introduced a ‘notify me when in stock’ button to alert us when there is a demand.”

“We’ve had incredible feedback from our customers. Deliveries are now leaving our warehouse within minutes and at most one day after ordering. This method enables us to meet our customers’ increasing need for quicker deliveries, and it speaks to our current strategy across the business of focusing on our customers and the ever-important customer journey.”

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