Alcohol e-commerce: How one beer retailer found a boozy boon through online sales

A shot of one of the aisles inside the liquor store. Photo by Valerie Wencis/BU News Service

By Valerie Wencis
Boston University News Service

Belmont — A casual game of ping-pong pops in the open space that will soon become a beer hall outside Craft Beer Cellar. A few patrons peruse the tidy shelves of cans running the gamut from 70s-style rainbow motifs to the elegantly simplistic. 

Co-founder Suzanne Schalow sits behind the counter, quick to strike up a friendly conversation with whoever enters.

Less than a year ago, Schalow experienced a 40% loss in corporate clients due to the pandemic, while foot traffic decreased dramatically. 

But a decision to go digital a few years prior may have made all of the difference during the pandemic. The beer cellar’s e-commerce infrastructure was created back in 2016 but had never taken off. However, within weeks of the pandemic-induced shutdown, the co-founders saw online sales increase. 

Overwhelmed by the volume, Schalow’s team discovered they could not shut off delivery times on the e-store’s checkout panel. Nitrosell, the business’ website partner, modified the platform. 

“We wrangled with how many [deliveries] we could make in those time frames, how far we would go and what the cost to the customer would be,” Schalow said.

Their hard work paid off. Online sales this past January were more than 2,000% higher than in January 2020. Schalow’s experience is emblematic of those in her industry who adopted an online-sales-and-delivery model to meet the rising demand of thirsty, but cautious, consumers.

The pandemic has given the model a real jumpstart, according to Bryan Roth of Good Beer Hunting, a digital magazine providing news, analysis and trends in the beer industry. He cited Drzly’s 2018 prediction that it would take a decade for the U.S.’s alcohol e-commerce market to reach $15 billion. Yet in less than three years, it reached $24 billion. 

“This was just one of those things that just went zero to sixty,” Roth said. 

With Uber purchasing Drizly last month, there is no sign of online demand slowing down. Loath to leave potential customers on the table, Craft Beer Cellar recently went live with Minibar and Drizly.

Roth said businesses should have a social media presence to enhance sales. People ages 50 and older are the fastest-growing population to join Facebook. Not only this, but this age group accounts for around 40% of all alcohol consumption in the U.S. They have the most money to spend of any generation as well. The visual medium also provides some of the sensory experience that is traditionally part of buying beer. 

Roth emphasized that people are craving interactive experiences that previously came with festivals and in-store tastings. 

“If ever there was a space where boutique curation could succeed, it’s beer,” Roth said. 

Craft Beer Cellar will soon implement what Schalow calls the “Stitch Fix model,” or personalized shopping that provides customers recommendations based on what they ordered in the past. 

Schalow projects it will be at least a decade, if ever, before people return to stores in the same numbers, but said remaining successful is about staying connected, “whether it’s picking up the phone and calling them, on a text, on an email or standing and talking for five minutes with a customer about their health and safety.”

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