Todd Templin and members of Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market's wine team span the globe in search of hard-to-find premium wine.
On the itinerary this year are a trip to Europe, and more local excursions to Sonoma and Napa valleys, and Oregon Pinot Camp for an exploration of the state's pinot noirs. “We like to build a lot of personal relationships with the wineries, the growers and the wine makers so that we can get wines that are rare for supermarkets to get,” said Templin, who is beer and wine director for DLM.
But there is more to these journeys than the inquisitive wine buyers' swish, sniff and spit.
That's because DLM associates who lack the authority to make wine-purchasing decisions also get to go.
“We get all of our wine staff, full- and part-time, out to wine country,” Templin said. “It gives them great credibility with customers when they say, ‘I've been to Napa and this is a great winery and this is why.’”
At a time when the Food Marketing Institute's Food Industry Speaks Annual State of the Industry Review 2009 reports that turnover of supermarket employees is at 49.2%, DLM's investment in professional development is rewarded with years of loyalty.
In fact, Templin describes his decades-long tenure with the three-store independent as being on the modest end of the spectrum.
“I've been with the company for 22 years and I'm probably on the young side,” he said. “In the wine shop, our most recent hire has been with us for six years.”
When it comes to wine in particular, supermarkets who help feed associates' curiosity will not only build their credibility with shoppers, but keep employees engaged.
“Wine is not just a job for most people, they're drawn to it as a passion,” Eileen Fredrikson, partner at wine consultancy Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, told SN. “They want to know much more about every region and producer, and they're looking for jobs that give them that opportunity.”
So far this year, six members of DLM's 14-member wine staff have gone on an excursion. At least one of four wine buyers goes on each trip.
“We're trying to get as many people involved as we can,” Templin said.
And for good reason. DLM's wine associates spend hours on the floor each day helping shoppers navigate their way through 2,800 to 5,000 wine SKUs, depending on location. Each of its three wine departments is staffed with two to three associates, between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day.
“We have clients who are very inquisitive and we want them to have an educated answer at the beef counter, the cheese counter, the produce department, and we want that same experience in the wine section,” noted Templin.
Margins linked to incremental sales brought in throughout the day exceed the cost of staffing the section, he noted.
“It's a great opportunity to upsell, for sure,” Templin said.
Inquiries about wine that has been imported from Germany, France and Italy are common, as are questions about food pairings, or how otherwise to prepare for a party. To ensure that shoppers receive solid answers about how a particular wine tastes or how it will interact with food, Templin encourages team member tastings. These take place just about every day, and are timed to wine distributor visits. Associates' knowledge is also supplemented through lessons learned in wine appreciation classes offered at the nearby Miami University and University of Dayton.
Likewise benefiting from proximity are wine associates at Woodlands Market, Kentfield, Calif.
The one-store independent, which boasts a 900-SKU wine shop and in-store wine bar for Friday and Saturday night tastings, is situated between Napa Valley (an hour to the north) and San Francisco (a half-hour to the south).
Woodlands' nearness to wine country has allowed wine buyer David Curtis to forge relationships with many boutique wine producers, while its closeness to the Golden Gate City allows it access to a range of resources.
“We've got a lot of trade shows coming to San Francisco and we can avail ourselves to find out about trends, and taste single varietals, appellations and whole countries showcased,” noted Curtis, who's been with Woodlands for 14 years.
Indeed, Woodlands is at an advantage when it comes to cultivating employee knowledge.
“I know several people who began in supermarkets in the San Francisco area,” Fredrikson said. “There is no better place to learn more, since every winery and every distributor on Earth is there asking you to please taste this product, and please come to this wine show.”
Woodlands is mindful of its prime location. So although it requires that new wine hires have a basic knowledge of wine, aptitude in that area is not paramount. Instead, personality sets apart members of a long list of candidates.
“You have to have a certain type of floor energy and the ability to adapt to our [family] culture,” Woodlands' founder Don Santa explained.
An apprentice-type learning program helps new employees quickly get up to speed.
Members of Woodlands' wine staff — which includes two full-timers (excluding Curtis), and a part-time employee — who've been with Woodlands between two and 10 years, also gain knowledge by attending trade shows.
Their time on the store floor is spent manning Woodlands' wine department between 9:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. each day, and introducing shoppers to new wine during Friday and Saturday night tastings. During the tastings, one employee staffs the wine bar, while another assists shoppers in the wine department.
Associates strike a balance between being helpful and allowing independence.
“We're pretty pensive about not being too aggressive,” said Santa. “You have to allow people to browse, and lead and explore, but we always make ourselves available.”
Tastings cost $5, include three to seven wines, two to three complementary cheeses, and bread and crackers for palate cleansing, said Curtis. Discounts of $2 off featured wine help drive sales during the tastings.
“Sometimes we have amazing results,” Curtis said.
Drawing on restaurant experience, staff members take turns selecting cheeses or light entrees to pair with wine. Many have already tasted their selections, since producers make samples available for staff. Suggestions made on the floor help drive sales.
“A myriad of customers are shy, but when approached they often open up immediately and tell you just what they're looking for,” Curtis said. “It's our job to encourage rather than intimidate, and once they find something they like it's amazingly easy to make another suggestion that will often turn into an augmented purchase.”
Although Woodlands' wine area takes up just 5% of the store's 10,000 square feet, it's responsible for about 10% of gross sales, Santa said. And that's not taking sales of food made as a result of pairing suggestions into account.
But not all retailers have a business model that supports staffed wine sections. Wine resources like downloadable shelf talkers, designed to engage shoppers when employees aren't available, are helping to drive wine sales in locations like these.
Chains like Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., have found success by applying a blended approach.
Although Safeway didn't return SN's request for comment, Fredrikson noted that each of its stores has a wine manager who balances their time between stocking shelves and assisting customers in the wine section and filling in elsewhere in the store.
Buyers must stick to a core wine list, but they're given latitude to tailor their store's selection to what's made available locally.
“Safeway is supportive of regional wines, and this is evident on the shelf,” Fredrikson said. “Many producers are too small to go to full distribution but can be placed locally.”
Woodlands too has plans to go local with its wine selection. In fact, it's zeroed in on land within a mile of its store.
“We're in the process of developing and cultivating our own organic, sustainable produce farm,” said Santa. “We'll also have vines for our own private-label wines.”
Currently, Santa is tracking down the most mature vine that would be compatible with the soil there. The finished product will hit shelves within three to five years.