How a local beer store launched online sales during COVID-19
A small beer store has adapted to COVID-19 with online sales and deliveries, and early results look promising.
In 2016, Julie Drews and Beth Helle tried their luck.
After developing a passion for brewing beer and seeing the need for a subway-accessible bottle store in northern Virginia, the two friends decided to quit their managerial positions at accounting firms and start The Brew Shop, a beer and wine store in Arlington, Virginia.
During its four years of activity, the shop has carved out a solid reputation among its regulars.
Customers appreciated the store owners’ willingness to let them pare down a beer or two from a six-pack if they wanted to try something new, as well as Drews and Helle’s in-depth knowledge of the vast beer selection and of wines in the store. .
As The Brew Shop charted a course for 2020 in January, which is typically the slowest month of the year for beer shops as people cling to their New Year’s resolutions to drink less alcohol, Drews and Helle recognized new business in the office buildings that dot Arlington’s Orange subway line.
“There are a lot of offices in the neighborhood, and a lot of the offices have Kegerators and serve alcohol as a regular thing,” Drews says. “We were thinking about how to target the right companies, because not all corporate cultures have that kind of environment.”
As Drews and Helle focused on companies that had the right environment, Mother Nature, in the form of COVID-19, stepped in. “We were starting to make deliveries [to those offices], then the coronavirus hit and all the offices closed,” says Drews. “So obviously it’s on the back burner at this point.”
In those uncertain days of early and mid-March, The Brew Shop owners had bigger concerns than office deliveries. They wondered what would happen to their walk-in business as people started hiding, and words like “social distancing” became part of the lexicon.
“I think it was the week before St. Patrick’s Day that it got weird around here,” Drews says. “We had an event scheduled for that Friday that we had planned probably three months in advance. It was a bit heartbreaking.
Some people still showed up for the event, which was a tasting with the founder of Charles Towne Fermentory, a brewery in Charleston, South Carolina. And they bought beer and wine, a lot.
“They were looking to stock up in anticipation of having to stay home for a bit,” says Drews. “I don’t know if anyone thought we’d be home for as long as we did.”
Sales vs security amid stay-at-home orders
When stay-at-home orders went into effect, Drews and Helle had to weigh sales against safety, as the store was deemed an essential business. At first, the owners only allowed five people into the store at a time.
“Everyone was very cool and understanding,” says Drews. “We had people waiting outside, but it only lasted about a week. It was just uncomfortable for our employees and for us trying to function and move around. We try to stay far enough away from people, but our store is not that big. It’s hard to do that when you have clients.
So The Brew Shop has closed for walk-in customers. While safety prevailed, people still wanted their beer. The demand for alcohol continued to increase. Instead of going to bars, restaurants, concerts and movies, people were drinking at home. It’s not just a Northern Virginia phenomenon. Nationally, alcohol consumption is up 27% since March, according to Nielsen Research.
To meet this need and stay in business, Drews and Helle had to solve some problems. They had to collect orders and payments.
Swivel on the fly to fill online orders
At first, the pair relied on somewhat rudimentary and technologically “clunky” solutions. Fortunately, the owners of The Brew Shop had the experience and the basic technical infrastructure to adapt quickly.
“Beth and I are accountants,” says Drews. “We run inventory reports all the time. It is not difficult for us to make a stock list and sanitize it for public consumption. We just needed to communicate it to people so they could order it. And we knew we had the ability to set up forms on our website.
On those forms, customers could go to the site and enter whatever they wanted — a keg or a gift basket (which has been a big seller in the age of COVID) — and press submit, and the store would receive the command. The store clerk would then call that customer for their credit card information. “It was clunky, but it was a start,” says Drews.
The system worked quite well at first, but there were problems. Inefficiencies often occurred in the payment process.
“You call people, they answer, and they may or may not have their credit card handy,” says Drews. “We have to wait for them to find him. They may not even answer, and then you just leave a message. It’s a lot of back and forth and time spent.
Helle and Drews knew the longer-term solution was an online shopping system where customers could choose what they wanted, pay, and either pick it up curbside or have it delivered (for orders over of $75). “We already had a delivery license in place [from its corporate deliveries]says Drews. “The fact that we had our delivery license in place was fortuitous when the coronavirus hit. We could just start delivering to individuals seamlessly.
How the software helped them succeed
Rather than using one of many e-commerce platforms, such as Squarespace (which hosts The Brew Shop’s website) and Shopify, they used a recently introduced system from their POS processor , ShopKeep.
“The advantage is that the inventory systems communicate with each other,” says Drews. “So our in-store inventory speaks to the online store. If we were going with someone else, we had to limit what’s available online.
Additionally, The Brew Shop, like many bottle shops in the area, has maxed out its existing regular email (widely expected by beer geeks). It comes out every Thursday, listing new beers and wines hitting stores. In a post-COVID world, it’s likely that SMBs will increasingly rely on email and other forms of digital marketing.
In one week, The Brew Shop will carry 375 to 450 beers. Drews and Helle wanted to make all of this selection available to customers. “We don’t want to just sell 50 things, which we could have done…and call it a day,” says Drews. “We wanted to find a way to have all of our inventory available to everyone.”
The only thing missing at the moment is that they cannot sell individual beers through their online store.
What does the business look like now
Drews and Helle regularly review sales. While the profitability calculus has changed now that the store has to buy personal protective equipment and make deliveries to residences around Arlington, the store has been able to survive because shopping habits have changed.
“We see people buying more at a time, and there are people we ship to every three weeks,” Drews says. “They are probably spending the same as they were spending before. They just do it piecemeal now.
There was a major additional cost in transitioning The Brew Shop to an online system. For four years, Drews and Helle were able to negotiate reasonable prices on in-store credit card purchases. But online sales systems are more expensive, often starting at 3.5% or $0.30 plus 2.9% per transaction. For a low-margin business like a beer store, these costs are high.
But desperate times call for drastic measures. And these are certainly unprecedented times, so Drews and Helle decided the investment in the online store was finally worth it.
“Sometimes you just have to jump in and figure out the rest after you get there,” Drews says.