Total Wine & More

Total Wine & More (Photo by the brand)

Making a difference

Have you ever wondered if you can make a difference in changing how businesses sell products? I have. Many times! But until now, I had never pursued making my voice heard, and I’m so glad I did. I can count scores, if not hundreds of store surveys, phone polls, and comment requests that I’ve skipped over the years, all because I figured it wouldn’t matter! After all, time is precious, so why waste it on a store survey? Well, this time, and against all odds, it did make a difference. So, what did I do?

It started when I visited the new Total Wine & More in Surprise, AZ. Despite the store’s massively broad selection of whiskeys, most neatly aligned in aisle after aisle of shelves designated by product type: Rum, Vodka, Gin, Irish Whiskey, Scotch, and bourbon, all neatly organized and arranged for easy selection. And then there’s “American Whiskey,” a jumble of rye, corn (non-bourbon), and malt whiskeys aligned by distillery name, not by product. As I tried to find a bottle of Cedar Ridge’s “The Quintessential” (review here), I realized what a mess they made of American Single Malts (ASMs).

Lack of Input

It was offensive – why would a store so renowned for its tremendous variety and availability thwart customers from finding the products they want? So, I expressed my dissatisfaction to the head cashier. To my chagrin, he stated that the store has no control or even input about how products are displayed.

“All merchandising decisions are made at the corporate level. They won’t even listen to us, so you’re better off reaching out to them directly,” he advised. What???

So I did what I was told multiple times, all with no response. I even connected with a slew of TW&M managers and merchandisers on LinkedIn, hoping to gain a sympathetic ear. Yet, despite my best efforts at online “silver-tongued-devilism,” I was ignored, disregarded, shunned, and hung out to dry. That was until I filled out one lowly little post-purchase survey. After buying some wine for my wife, I received a request to complete a post-purchase survey. I responded honestly, expressing my frustration.

Earth-Shaking Response

OMG!!! You’d have thought the Earth was shattering! Within a day, I received a call from the store’s interim manager (they did just open, so they’re still staffing) the next day. It seems that they take those store surveys VERY seriously! She spent fifteen or twenty minutes asking pointed questions about my thoughts and assured me that she would discuss my concerns with her regional manager. However, even after our pleasant conversation, I really didn’t expect it to go any further.

Two days later, I received a phone conference invite from that regional manager, and once we connected, we had a thorough and frank conversation – about my interest in ASMs, my background, and most importantly, my expectations – in this case, for a separate shelf section just for ASMs. I was happy to wax (quite eloquently, may I add?!?) on all those subjects, and I’m pleased to report that he was highly receptive to my request. He explained some general guidelines used by TW&M for making shelf space decisions, giving me a higher level of insight into the process and criteria applied in allocating their precious shelf real estate. The bottom line – he agreed to make a dedicated shelf or two just for ASMs. No shelf tag (there just isn’t enough to warrant that, yet, but at least a dedicated space to make finding ASMs easier.

WIN – WIN – WIN!!!

But, to fully understand what I accomplished, it helps to understand my motives. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m a loudly vocal advocate of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission and the products, brands, and industry it supports. The Commission has been laser-focused on ensuring that the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) creates an official designation and definition of the product, aligned with bourbon (USA), Scotch (Scotland), and Irish Whiskey (Ireland).

I recently chatted with Steve Hawley, president of the Commission and former Global VP of Westland Distillery (read our review of their whiskey here). He’s been pushing hard for TTB acceptance. He stated, “Our membership at the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission is thrilled that TTB has taken up this very important topic. We’re grateful that they’ve heard the petition from American Single Malt producers themselves and proposed a Standard of Identity that matches ours.”

He also addressed the industry’s overall impact on the American spirits scene. “American Single Malt is the fastest-growing category in whiskey which means that there’s increasing urgency to solidify a definition in our federal regulations. While TTB has proposed several important questions as part of the process, we’re hopeful that they will continue to take our lead in determining the answers to those questions and will ratify a definition soon.”

Follow Through

So, my small effort to affect change, while pale in comparison to those of Steve Hawley and the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, feels like a significant win – for consumers, for American Single Malts, and more importantly, for the power of the “little guy.” It’s a reminder that, at some point, we do have a voice in making changes. While consumers often have an impact when their efforts are done “en masse” (look at what happened to Budweiser and Target, for example), it can feel pretty lonely when trying to get your local chain store to consider your viewpoint. I’m thrilled to say that Total Wine & More does seem to take every individual consumer’s opinion seriously, at least regarding surveys. TW&M has converted me into a believer, although it took some effort. We’ll have to wait and see if they follow through!