- My co-founder and I started a distillery in 2017 to revive the authentic taste of spirits using local grains.
- I learned a lot about the way customers buy alcohol and discover new brands.
- Here are some of my biggest takeaways from hours of shoppers getting to know liquor stores.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Sean Anger, 37, founder of Fox and Seeker Distilled Goods, who spends time selling his product in liquor stores. It has been edited for length and clarity.
More than a decade ago, I became interested in the beverage industry after watching a documentary about a group of winemakers in Sonoma Valley. I had a background in engineering and manufacturing, which taught me how to brew beer at home.
I was fascinated by how you could create different flavors using grains, and I started learning more about spirits. My co-founder and I started Fox and Seeker Distilled Goods, a distillery company, in 2017, with the main goal of reviving the authentic taste in distilled spirits using only local grains.
We sell vodka, gin and whisky, but what makes our products different is that they are made from scratch in our distillery.
My role varies from day to day, but I am mainly responsible for marketing and operations. Not only do we sell through our own tasting room in Texas, but we also distribute in store stories across the US. Since we are a relatively new brand, I spend Thursday through Saturday at various liquor stores promoting our spirits.
At this point, we are a wholesale-first business and 80% of our time is spent building our retail footprint, so our in-store tastings can account for 30-50% of our sales each month.
Since I spend more than 15 hours a week in stores, I see a lot. Here are some interesting takeaways.
Many customers believe false marketing
The biggest challenge when selling in a store is facing marketing myths surrounding a particular style of liquor.
For example, I am constantly asked how many times our vodka has been distilled. People have been misled by advertising from other liquor brands that more distilled means better quality, but that’s not the truth. It’s just a marketing ploy.
It is always a tough challenge to respect a potential client’s perception and lack of knowledge while trying to educate them about liquor production.
Another piece of good advice is to check the label for a manufacturing statement about where the spirit actually comes from. It is illegal to claim that a brand comes from a particular distillery unless the distillation actually takes place there.
You meet all kinds of people in shops
During in-store tastings, I speak to a variety of people, including celebrity athletes, aspiring rappers, the homeless, and families buying stuff for a reunion. That’s probably the greatest joy: you literally never know who you’re going to meet.
However, the dark side is people who come in because they are alcoholics. They come to me for a free sample and then go out and buy what they can for their solution. To me it’s discouraging.
But it’s not as common as people think. I would say less than 5% of the people I meet are alcoholics; 5% come to the store for the first time to stock up for big parties. Everyone else is somewhere in the middle.
The majority of my customers are what I consider in-and-out or convenience shoppers. They usually walk into the store with an idea of exactly what they want. Some of them are open to chatting and trying out a new brand.
Over the years, we’ve started looking at which stores to focus more on, as customers there seem to be more open to new brands.
Buying behavior is often related to demographics and trends
I’m starting to see that people in their mid-30s to mid-50s, generally in both suburban and higher density areas, are more receptive to trying new brands of alcohol. However, this audience is often less likely to make a purchase the first time they meet us, so they often take longer to become a potential customer.
Inflation has affected people’s decision making
Over the past year, with inflation, I’ve noticed that customer buying habits have changed. Fox and Seeker ghosts range from $19.99 to $44.99. People have started asking more questions about our spirits to justify the value, whether it’s the size of the bottle, the price, or sometimes they don’t want to buy another bottle of vodka or gin before they finish what they have at home.
Value-oriented buying behavior will persist if we are in a recession next year.
I noticed in 2008, during the recession, that people were spending their money on more established drink brands; people didn’t want to put their money in a bottle they didn’t already trust.
No marketing works better than one-on-one conversations
As a founder of a new distillery company, no marketing tactic helps to generate more sales than being in stores. We are constantly competing with big name or celebrity endorsed brands. They put so much money into their marketing and there’s no way we can match that. There’s also so much buzz on social media, but ultimately the best way to build a new liquor brand is one-on-one with all types of customers in these stores.