With competition for wine and spirits customers in Massachusetts’s Berkshires region heating up, Jenn Andersen has found the need to expand her customer base. The general manager of Plaza Package Store in Great Barrington, Andersen decided last year that the time was right to market her business beyond the immediate area by using a mobile app. The move has been a big success. “With the app, we don’t have to wait for customers to come to us—we can go to them,” she says. By turning over much of the digital marketing that Andersen previously managed to the app provider, she can now spend more time on the sales floor engaging with customers.
Similarly, Texas retailer Twin Liquors’ app, which launched in late 2018, has allowed the company to respond to its customers’ interest in browsing and shopping on their phones. “We’re able to give our customers another way to shop with us,” explains Sandra Spalding, director of marketing at the chain, which has nearly 100 locations in the Lone Star State. “It’s established our online retail channel and has allowed for in-store pickup and delivery.” Since its introduction, the Twin Liquors app—which is available on the App Store and Google Play—has been enhanced so that customers can select specific store locations where they like to shop.
Indeed, as online shopping trends upward, beverage alcohol retailers around the country have jumped aboard the app train. They say that the technology is allowing them to better compete in a crowded marketplace, bringing in new customers and providing improved profits on delivery transactions as compared to those carried out by third-party providers. And customers like the convenience and added perks the apps offer. “Customer response has been great, as people are excited by the fact that they can still shop with us even when they aren’t able to come into our brick-and-mortar locations,” says Spalding. The Twin Liquors app was developed by City Hive Inc.’s e-commerce platform—which has provided apps for more than 1,000 liquor stores around the U.S.—with input from the retailer on the design and shopping experience configuration.
“People love our app, and they’re using it over and over again,” says Plaza’s Andersen, adding that the app had been downloaded “a few hundred times” just three months after launching, and that the number will likely rise significantly when peak tourism season arrives by mid-year. Plaza partnered with Bottlecapps, a beverage alcohol delivery app, last year on both a new website and the mobile app, which is compatible with the store’s p-o-s system. In addition to an initial cost, Plaza pays a monthly fee to the provider for maintenance and upkeep of the website and app, including linkage to the store’s social media sites and text messaging to app users.
Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins, Colorado, meanwhile, partnered with City Hive about three years ago on its website and app. “Our customers love it,” says owner Mat Dinsmore, adding that as an early adoptor of the technology, Wilbur’s was able to get a leg up on its competitors. Dinsmore estimates that as of late 2019, the app had been downloaded a couple thousand times with about 500 active users. Purchases from the app are evenly split among wine, spirits, and beer—even though beer accounts for less than 20% of in-store sales, Dinsmore notes.
“A successful app should represent the in-store experience,” remarks Roi Kliper, co-founder and CEO of City Hive. “An app is a tool of engagement and provides the ability to communicate and open up the conversation, just like in the store.” He adds that in some cases, retailers have “turned around their businesses” by marketing an app. “It’s not just due to the increased online sales, but by creating a different and more effective relationship with their customers, including those who walk into the store,” he explains.
The ability for customers to easily place orders via their mobile phones is a key feature of retailer apps. New Jersey-based Gary’s Wine & Marketplace launched its app in partnership with City Hive in late 2018 and, according to Gary’s director of business development Michael Fisch, the app has had over 1,500 downloads. “Our team had significant input in the design of the app, and the City Hive team executed the design exactly to our specifications,” Fisch says. Last year, Gary’s—which has four stores in the Garden State and one in California—added one-hour delivery to its app features to augment the existing one-hour store pickup and national shipping options. Plaza Package Store also offers in-store pickup via its app, and users can schedule the time of pickup. Andersen would like to make product pickup even more convenient for her customers and may offer a curbside option in the future.
The apps also allow retailers to tout special promotions where legal, and to advertise store events. Kliper notes that some retailers offer special pricing on app purchases, coupons, free merchandise—such as cheese with the purchase of a bottle of wine—and the opportunity to win prizes. “We encourage mobile app downloads by offering promotions that are exclusively available on the app,” Fisch explains. He says users also rely on the app to see upcoming in-store events, view order history, and track tasting notes and wine reviews.
Spalding notes that the ability to scan product barcodes is a popular feature of Twin Liquors’ app. “Customers are able to quickly replenish their home bar or see if we carry a particular product they enjoyed while dining out,” she explains. At Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, owner Ryan Maloney says one of the unique features of his store’s mobile app is the alert that users receive when new products, such as coveted single-barrel selections, arrive. Julio’s partnered with Palate Wizards several years ago on its app. “It’s been a good experience, with nearly 4,000 downloads,” Maloney says. “We accomplished a lot.” But at press time, Palate Wizards was leaving Massachusetts, and Maloney was in talks with City Hive for a new app.
Other features of retailer apps include tie-ins to loyalty programs and personalized product recommendations. And some retailers opt for apps as a way to build their delivery business without having to share profits with third-party services. Noting that on-demand purchasing has become a significant part of the business, City Hive’s Kliper says that store apps allow operators to capitalize on the trend and to “take ownership” of their relationships with customers.
Dinsmore agrees, noting that when retailers partner with third-party providers, “the customers aren’t your customers. Retailers are just a vehicle, and don’t receive the data on those consumers.” While the Wilbur’s app has helped increase its own delivery business, it has also built the store’s walk-in customer base via its pickup option. Dinsmore says half of the orders placed through the app are for pickup, “so I get to meet and know this customer.”
Retailers rely on a variety of tactics to promote their apps. “On an ongoing basis, we focus on refreshing the app banners, events, and other content to keep our guests engaged,” says Fisch. “We also run creative push notifications, such as happy hour specials, to drive app sales during off-peak times.” Twin Liquors, meanwhile, uses an array of tools to support its app, including digital and social media as well as television, radio, and print ads. Plaza Package Store advertises its app in a local shopper’s guide, as well as on social media, and promotes downloads by offering free delivery on the first order and eligibility for raffles. But the most useful tactic, Andersen says, may be the most old-fashioned. “Staff promotion has been the most effective way to get word out about the app,” she notes.
With consumers increasingly shopping on their phones, beverage alcohol retailers expect that mobile apps will play a more important role in their e-commerce operations. For other retailers considering an app, they recommend that all options, including providers and terms of service, be researched. “Look at the investment and payment that the app requires,” Maloney advises, noting that depending on terms with the provider, “the more successful you are, the more you may need to pay out.” He, Dinsmore, and Andersen agree that apps that integrate with p-o-s systems make the most sense going forward.
As the battle for market share at retail gets increasingly fierce, Andersen notes the importance of being different. “Apps allow you to expand your customer base,” she says. City Hive’s Kliper expects that mobile apps will become a necessary tool for all beverage alcohol retailers. “The store of the future will be digital,” he says. “Apps empower consumers to have good experiences both in the store and at home.”