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What's a Good Retailer?
I find that there are a variety of common complaints about retailers, and over the years one hears them repeating. The customers and the sellers change, but the complaints stay the same. One reality is that no one should expect perfection. Alas, retailers are human, too, and minor mistakes happen. What you should look for, though, is someone with the right attitude and basic integrity. And there are a few things that they have to do right most of the time, too.
Storage, often tops the list, and for good reason. I recall this story: a customer walked into a famous New York store to pick up futures of 1986 Chateau Margaux, and the corks were all pushed up. The store was warm on the pick-up day, and that wasn't the first warm day of the year, either. On questioning the condition of the wine, the customer was treated to the spectacle of the retailer lying through his teeth. The retailer said that most of the bottles were like that and they were overfilled at the Chateau. It was easy enough to find other bottles around the country, and plainly Margaux did not release its 1986 vintage with the corks all pushed up. The retailer argued and hassled, but finally took the wine back. The customer never shopped there again---and rightly so. Moreover, the person doing the hassling was not a low level sales clerk, but a co-owner. Outrageous.
Too many stores, even if they don't try to lie about the condition of the wines, have questionable storage. I have seen this so often it is sickening. When you buy expensive wine, and wine to lay down, and ten years later you open it and wonder why your experience is so much poorer than some critic who gave it a rave review--start here. Storage. Even if the wine is damaged by only 15%--hey, that's the margin that turns an ordinary wine into a great one. So, how does your retailer treat storage?
Throughout our 3-tier system, storage is often an afterthought. A well known distributor in my region used to be called "the bakery" for its habit of storing great Bordeaux way up high in an un-airconditioned warehouse. So, the retailer not only has to have decent storage, but has to be vigilant about refusing damaged wines. They have to be willing to say, when they take warm bottles off the un-airconditioned truck in August on a 100 degree day: "Not interested. Take it back." One day, some customer is going to sue a lot of folks for passing off defective wines because they knowingly sell wines that are damaged from poor storage. Groceries manage to transport lettuce and milk safely, but some don't seem to care whether they safeguard $50 a bottle wines.
The retailers also have to get the job done themselves. There is a store in my area where they had valuable white Burgs under a heating vent with sunlight streaming down on them--and all standing up. They claimed the wines moved fast, which under those conditions probably doesn't matter. But I also noticed dust on a lot of them. While it is not necessary to keep the store at 55f for revolving inventory, someone at least has to commit to keeping it well airconditioned and temperature controlled, and there has to be a professionally cooled area for the back room stuff, the inventory that may be sitting awhile. How many retailers meet these standards? Too few, and even if they have the capacity to meet these standards, they also have to have the will to do so. I remember walking into a store in Melbourne, Australia that sold many rare items, and there was no airconditioning on a very hot day. I finally left, to the manager's displeasure, with no purchases. He insisted, "We do have airconditioning!" Ah. They have it. They just don't turn it on, to save money. Shop carefully, and grab things as soon as they arrive at most stores, otherwise caveat emptor. In most places, you don't even want to think about buying things that are sitting on the shelf for a year or two.
If you're getting a lot of cooked wines from a particular place--it's time to get a new retailer. Until people start voting with their dollars, nothing will change in that regard.
Integrity is not a minor point in general, but this usually crops up with respect to a couple of issues as a customer complaint. A common complaint is that someone ordered a future or pre-release, and the store couldn't deliver. Obviously, the most important issue there is getting back the money that you paid. There are also other issues though---does the store refund interest? Do they make an effort to deliver the wine, even they have to eat some of the cost? Depending on how much was at stake or how much the wine meant to you, this may be a serious issue. Another issue is corked wines. Will the store take back your corked wines and refund the price or deliver an equivalent bottle? They should. The laws in some areas are odd--with alcohol, this is a given--but most stores should have no impediment to refunding. If you have any doubt, and you get a line about it being illegal, call your local liquor board and confirm it. In most cases, it probably isn't true. In fact, in most cases you could make an argument that selling defective wine and not refunding the price is grounds for a consumer lawsuit.
Another common issue is pricing. In this regard, I can only say, shop around! Pricing is bizarre, and the fluctuations are not always due to retailer greed. Pricing depends on distribution problems locally, whether the retailer is getting a re-release or has original stock, and so on. In any good store, you'll notice they have some good bargains, and some overpriced wines. That's life. Shop around. If you find a retailer is consistently high, that's another issue. One fact of life is that the bigger stores have more margin to play with because distributors often offer them volume discounts for large purchases, which discounts they can pass along. But don't complain about pricing--it is what it is, just shop around. And remember---cheap but cooked wine is not much of a bargain.
People complain, too, about customer preferences. That is, a retailer will save the most allocated wines or best deals for their regulars and/or heavy buyers. Well, here I have to be on the retailer's side. Why shouldn't they? No one has a right to the best deal or best wine. If a retailer chooses to cultivate heavy and regular customers rather than advertising to the general population and using scarce wines as loss leaders--that's their business model. So be it. Either become a regular, or shop at a store with a different policy. In fact, in life and in wine, I find it's always helpful to become a regular somewhere and develop a relationship with a business. That's just good common sense. As it was profoundly stated in the show Cheers, you want to be someplace where everyone knows your name.
And then there are the salespeople. In some regions, you get people like Pierre Rovani, once upon a time, as a salesperson. In other regions, the salesperson may as well be selling lettuce for all the help you'll get. How important this is to you depends on your own sophistication and from what other sources you get your recommendations. Personally, I don't care much about this oft-heard complaint. I know what I want most of the time. But if you are just starting out, having some guidance from a knowledgeable seller may be a big help. On a related matter, some stores, if allowed by their States, will hold educational tastings and dinners, too.
Can anyone here listen? You may start tearing your hair out if you order wine and agree on a shipping date, only to find they ship when they feel like it and ignore everything you've said. From top to bottom, retailers are not the best organized at such things. Your choice may only be to accept the lesser of all evils. C'est la vie.
When you are past these issues, the rest seem fairly obvious. Yes, it's better to have a neat organized store, than not, but that won't matter much if you get well stored, inexpensive deals at the sloppier store. Yes, it's better to have a vast selection than not, but if a store can deliver X items that you want at the price you want and with storage perfect, at least you have those wines locked in. No store is going to have everything.
You might remember, too, that the retailer is not always at fault. A retailer I know once told me this story. A customer bought a case of wine, tried a bottle, didn't like it. He called the retailer to ask for permission to return the other 11 bottles, to which request the retailer agreed. The customer, in mid-summer no less, stuck the wine in his trunk, drove around doing errands all day, and at the end of the day finally got it to the retailer. The wine was hot and cooked. The customer expected the retailer to take it back. Sometimes life is a two-way street. Be reasonable.
Finally, find someone with whom you are comfortable. Everyone has a certain comfort zone. But don't let a smooth talker convince you to stay with a store that sells damaged wine, or fails you in other important respects.
Copyright Mark Squires, © 2004 all rights reserved.
is a registered trademark of Mark Squires