During the holidays you can often find me at a wine retailer or grocery wine department pouring samples for a local distributor. It’s a great way to meet people, teach them about wine, and make some extra money at the same time. When my venue is a grocery wine department, I’m often the sole person there. So in addition to pouring one ounce (1 oz) tastings of “value” wine, I often give directions to items completely unrelated. Such was the case Friday evening. But on Saturday, my experience was very different.
My assignment was a former farming turned diverse suburban community south of Houston. Since this was the first time our distributor had promoted at the store, I wanted to make sure I arrived early to get the lay of the land. Now “as the crow flies” it’s about 40 minutes from my house. But since I had no crow, I decided to avoid the freeways and risk of some typical Houston pile-up to take the local back roads to the store. Probably a bad move. It’s been about 20 years since I’ve been to the area, and didn’t know how much it had developed. So I found myself cursing the folks leisurely driving 10 miles under the speed limit to queue up for a huge line heading into the big box retailers.
This Store is Huge!
I arrived 30 minutes prior to my shift — and ten minutes later found a place to park on the edge of what looked to be the largest H-E-B in Houston – near the two-lane drive-through pharmacy. At the wrong end of the parking lot to carry a table, ice bucket and assorted paraphernalia I take to one of these gigs. I walked past registers; past CDs and videos, past a Customer Service line at least 15 minutes deep. Then past a bevy of University of Texas and Texas A&M jerseys, and a Central Market Cafe on the Run to finally reach a friendly “greeter,” to ask if she could point me towards the wine department and its manager. The greeter described the manager as about my height and “one of two people dressed as elves.” Elves. Well, It is a week before Christmas.
So I headed through produce, past the bakery, past the deli and cheese and Cooking Connection stage area where chefs hooked up to microphones — like those Madonna and Britney and Janet use when they’re lip-synching singing and dancing on stage — described tantalizing morsels as they prepared them for sampling. Past a silver-coiffed gentleman in full Tuxedo handing out in-store coupons. Seriously. To the wine and beer department where no fewer than 4 samplers were set up pouring. The first elf I encountered looked much too young to be the manager (or pour for that matter, but then everyone looks younger the older I get.) I found the manager elf around the corner helping a customer. I introduced myself, got a few instructions and made the long walk back to the car to get my gear.
With all the product demos, Santa’s elves, the friendly greeter, Mr. Tuxedo and the entrepreneurs set up outside in front of the store, you would think this store was in “Grand Opening” mode. But no. This nearly 150,000 square foot store has been open since November 2007. The also have a gas station at the edge of the parking lot. From reading on-line message board posts during its actual Grand Opening it seems from the size and layout folks expected prices closer to Walmart and Sams versus those more in line with a upper scale grocery retailer. I found them pretty reasonable compared to Kroger and Randalls. Even the wagyū (yes) steaks were a pretty decent price per pound.
Not Your Typical Wine and Beer Department
The beer and wine department is not what one usually expects as a grocery store. Its layout resembles Central Market, with one big exception — I can reach ALL of the shelves without needing the help of high heels or a man. Could be due to Manager Mary Busby’s stature, but whatever it is it works for me. Wines are grouped by country or varietal and priced high to low on the shelves, highest prices on top. There is even a section marked “Whimsical.” And I was surprised by the selection. Names like Silver Oak, Swanson, Caymus, Darioush and HALL. Not just Stags Leap but Stags Leap Wine Cellars as well. As well as a number of good moderately and higher priced wines from Blackstone and Ravenswood. And in the sparkling section a little note that says “Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer Cristal available in the Business Center.” In a Houston suburb that was formerly a cow pasture.
But it wasn’t just the selection that surprised me. The shelves were constantly being re-stocked. On a busy Saturday. No sooner would something run out, than a pallet of boxes be hauled out and the boxes emptied. Quickly. Without blocking the aisles. While smiling at customers and helping them choose wines at the same time. And Manager Mary stayed in the department the entire time. Keeping an eye on those of us offering tastings, making sure we weren’t just taking up space.
And continuing to help customers whether they were looking for “something to take to a dinner party,” or “that wine they serve at the Olive Garden;” which I learned would be delivered on Monday — 30 cases worth, because it had just sold out. After the customer walked away, I asked her about that, commenting, it sounds a bit like Saint Arnold’s Divine Reserve. The Divine series are single batch beers put out in special releases that quickly sell out (sometimes in 10 minutes) to a loyal cult following. Joe can rarely get them. Even though he works five minutes from a local retailer and can leave his job on release day to go pick up a six pack.
Some stores limit purchase to one six-pack per person. Mary goes a step better.
“I have customers put their names on a list,” she says. “Because it’s not fair when one person buys them all up to sell them on ebay.” Which, we both know, is illegal, especially in the State of Texas. “That way a person knows when he gets off work, he can come in and get his Divine Reserve,” she says, “Because people have to go to work.”
Amazing. You can put your name on a list for a beer that sells out in 10 minutes. Now that’s customer service. The kind you might expect at a small store in the older neighborhoods of a big city or a small town. Or if you’re an important customer at the big wine retailer. Not a huge mega-store that sits along the freeway in the Houston suburbs. It’s the kind of service that builds clientele, not just customers. The kind that will get folks to come brave a huge packed parking lot on a busy Saturday to pick up a bottle of wine on the way to a dinner party.
The difference between Friday, where I was alone, and Saturday was this: Friday night my samples sold just 5 bottles in the three hours I poured samples. Saturday, where I was competing with 4 other samplers I “sold” 27 bottles in the same amount of time.
For Houston area residents, H-E-B Plus! #63 is located near the corner of Highway 288 and FM 518, on Business Center Drive in Pearland and is open 6 a.m. to midnight. For those of you outside of Houston take heed. If you’re running a wine department this is the kind of service you should provide. And if you’re shopping for wine, look for a retailer that knows who the customer is, and works hard to bring her back.