WHAT MAKES TOTAL WINE TICK How distillers can make the most of their relationship with the retailer BY KATE BERNOT
Total Wine & More is the largest independent beverage alcohol retailer in the U.S., and in 2020, it also became the largest independent spirits retailer in the country. Eli Aguilera, Total Wine’s senior vice president of merchandising, says Total Wine carries at least one product from nearly every craft distiller in the U.S. Indeed, he calls “breadth of selection” one of the company’s hallmarks. But in a sea of alcohol, how can a particular craft distiller’s bottle stand out? Aguilera says that’s where Total Wine’s second hallmark, service, comes in. (He names price as the third.) Service means that sales staff can act as knowledgeable guides that promote shoppers’ exploration and satisfy their curiosity. With such a vast selection, employees’ suggestions are paramount to guiding shoppers’ purchases. Aguilera (who is also a member of this magazine’s editorial board) says Total Wine does two key things to ensure that each store feels relevant, not generic, to those shoppers: It empowers its store managers and state-level employees to develop their own relationships with wholesalers and suppliers to manage inventory that consumers want, and it incentivizes store staff to complete educational opportunities related to different products and categories. The goal is to have a shopping trip to Total Wine feel like “an experience” for customers. Craft distillers’ products are a major piece of this.
Here is Aguilera’s advice for distillers looking to make the most of their relationship with Total Wine. MAKE TIME FOR FACE TIME Distillers who spend time in stores and connect with individual employees—not just buyers, but sales staff—will be top of mind when those staff are asked for recommendations. A shelf tag is critical, but a distiller can only say so much in 140 characters. “A craft producer who spends a lot of time coming in and sampling, getting to know store managers and team members, and who’s sharing their story as much as possible and developing ground-level relationships becomes very successful,” he says. “I highly recommend craft distillers spend time in our stores, not only in the office.” Distillers can submit new products through an online portal as soon as the product is ready, Aguilera says, but that should just be the start of a relationship between the distillery and Total Wine staff. PLAY YOUR STRONGEST HAND FIRST Total Wine’s opening orders for a new supplier are generally one case per item per store, Aguilera says. He asks distilleries to open with the strongest three or four sellers in their portfolio; then, orders can expand to other SKUs if sales are strong enough and if the distillery can ensure enough supply to meet demand.
“Make sure that you have the heavy hitter first and foremost because that’s what builds the brand,” he suggests. “You don’t want to squash innovation, but find ways of testing your innovation whether it be in your [tasting room] or whether with a core group of consumers. Don’t launch every innovation that you create.” BE STRATEGIC Aguilera cites Ironroot Republic Distilling of Denison, Texas, as one of Total Wine’s craft success stories. That owes to the plan Ironroot had in place from the start of its retail relationship with Total Wine: Ironroot wanted to be much more hands-on with both on- and off-premise sales in its home state of Texas, but wanted Total WIne to be the retail partner to accelerate its brand nationally. Ironroot also had something else Aguilera says is critical for distillery partners: A great story and brand personality. Two details that store sales associates can quickly convey about Ironroot are that the distillery was named Whisky Magazine’s Craft Producer of the Year in 2021, and that its distiller has traveled extensively across the globe to learn about the best and most innovative cask aging techniques. “One thing I’d highly recommend to [craft distillers] is that they have a command of their stories,” Aguilera says. “Be a great storyteller.” ■
“A craft producer who spends a lot of time coming in and sampling, getting to know store managers and team members, and who’s sharing their story as much as possible and developing ground-level relationships becomes very successful.” —Eli Aguilera of Total Wine 78 |
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C R AF T S PI R I T S MAG .CO M