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Employee Education

December 7, 2011

Part of yesterday’s birthday festivities involved picking up the last minute essentials for the celebration. The cake was ordered, and simply needed to be collected from Crisan. But I needed some sparkling wine to go along with the smoked meats from Capital Q, and I really wanted to get a bottle of the Rare Pear from Harvest Spirits to sip with Mrs. Fussy after the kids had gone to bed.

The only thing I was concerned about was that last one. When I dropped into the distillery after the Tour de Donut, it was clear there wasn’t a ton of Rare Pear produced. So I wasn’t even sure any would still be available.

Early in the morning, I called Golden Harvest Farm and was told that Derek wasn’t there yet, but the aged pear brandy was still in stock. And the nice lady on the other end of the line reminded me there were actual liquor stores nearby where I could buy it without taking the long drive to the distillery. That was a novel thought. So I decided to give one of the stores a ring.

To protect the guilty, let’s change the store’s name, and call them Emperor Wine & Spirits.

Generally, I don’t bristle at customer service. I can deal with surly and sullen. If service is slow, I can wait if it means I’ll get adequate attention when my turn rolls around. I don’t need a smile, and I don’t need to know your name. You need not be attractive, well groomed or pressed. If you know your sh*t all is forgiven.

But yesterday’s call reminded me of a recent in-store interaction, and that’s a problem.

So I called Emperor looking for Harvest Spirit’s Rare Pear after being told by the farm that they carry it. Maybe the farm was wrong, or maybe the liquor store sold out, but they didn’t have any.

The funny thing is that the guy on the other end of the phone didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about. He kept punching things in his computer and actually confessed to having never even heard of the product. That man didn’t exactly fill me with confidence (although to be fair, I stopped into the store later in the day and couldn’t find the product on their shelves either).

Emperor’s is a big store, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to know all of their products from memory. But Harvest Spirits is our local distillery, and Rare Pear is their new limited edition offering. On the distillery’s website, the bottle is front and center. I would hope that in local quality liquor store circles this would be big news.

Next I gave a ring to All Star Wines & Spirits up road. A lovely lady picked the phone, and couldn’t find Rare Pear in her computer right away, but persisted until she found it. There were four bottles of the spirit left. Score. And as a result of All Star having the bottle I needed, they ended up getting a lot more business from me. At the end of my shopping day I came home with a bottle of Macallan 12 for my father-in-law, a large bottle of Evan Williams bourbon for mixed drinks, a large bottle of Raynal brandy for cocktail cherries, and a bottle of prosecco for dinner.

Now this wouldn’t be a big deal if it were an isolated incident. You may even feel inclined to defend Emperor because it is primarily a wine store that also carries a fairly comprehensive portfolio of spirits. But I was in the store last month to buy some wine for Thanksgiving and I encountered an employee with a similar lack of knowledge.

The two experiences together mark an unfortunate trend.

I knew I wanted Zinfandel, but from there I was fairly flexible. I had some idea about what I wanted. I was looking for two different bottles, under $20 each, from the same vintage and region (my preference was for Sonoma or Lodi). Naturally I was looking for something that paired well with food, which really means a wine with some good acidity and not too hot with alcohol. This last part especially can be challenging with Zin.

So I was perusing the varietal’s section, and a clerk asked if I could use some help. As soon as I told him I was looking for a Zinfandel (which should have been obvious given my placement in the store) he volunteers that Ravenswood is a good producer.

Now he was right. And I’ve recommended the Ravenswood county series as a good introduction to the varietal in the past. But I told him I was looking for something a little less mass-produced.

This totally shut the young man down.

He asked me to wait for a minute, and returned with a Zinfandel from a table of manager-approved Thanksgiving wines at the front of the store. This one happened to come from Napa, which wasn’t what I wanted. So he took his Napa Zin and left, never to be heard from again.

Here’s my thing.

Educating a staff is hard, especially during the busy holiday season when you bring in new people to help out on the floor. I get it. But maybe it would be wise to have some kind of hierarchy based on knowledge.

If you only have one recommendation up your sleeve, maybe you shouldn’t be on the floor helping people pick out bottles. And if you’ve never even heard of the newest product from the region’s only distillery, maybe you shouldn’t be answering the phones. Emperor has some great prices on wine and a pretty fantastic selection. So I’ll continue to shop there.

But it’s not a place where I would send a wine novice, because I just don’t have faith that they would be in good hands. And that’s unfortunate, because Emperor’s could be great.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 11:04 am

    Customer service has dwindled to a point where once useful, attentive service is encountered, it’s unusual, rather than the norm. I’ve dealt with so many places who simply don’t seem to care that their staff have turned what could be an excellent retailer into a place I avoid because I can’t get anything accomplished.

    To your point that it’s hard to educate a staff, especially a seasonal staff, I would agree. However, if they can’t answer the question or solve the problem themselves, they should find someone who can. With many years of retail experience in my background, I understand that customers can have very specific needs, but there was never a case where if I couldn’t help them, I didn’t find someone who could. It’s really not that difficult.

    Perhaps the difficulty in finding the Rare Pear was the more unique nature of a pear brandy (although that’s not THAT unique) from a local business. It sounds like both retailers either need an updated inventory system, or more education for the staff on how to properly find items within the system.

  2. December 7, 2011 11:07 am

    I’m glad you landed a bottle of the Rare Pear. As I mentioned in my tweet a few minutes ago (before I read your post), Hudson Wine Merchants had it yesterday – I was thinking of you!! I originally noticed the Applejack on the shelf and asked the woman if they carried more from Harvest Spirits and she said they had Core, Rare Pear and asked if I knew about their un-aged pear brandy…all off the top of her head. She not only knows the local spirits, she knows wine too. I like my South American Malbecs and she had a ton of knowledge about the region and the wines when I dropped in last week. Yesterday, I wanted to try something new in white and she asked all the right questions and provided some great recommendations. You must stop there if you make a trip to Hudson. It’s not a huge shop, but the selection and experience is top notch.

    When it comes to stocking my shelf and I don’t have a ton of questions, Emperor’s is a good place. I was looking for Cornelius Applejack a couple of months ago. I couldn’t find it on the shelf so figured I’d just pick it up at the distillery. But when I was checking out the front of the store I asked the clerk and she knew what it was right away and insisted it should have been on the shelf where I was looking. She was going to even send someone over to pick it up, but I was in a hurry so figured I’d get it later. So that was a semi-positive experience at Emperor’s with their Harvest collection….but there are like a hundred people on staff there so it’s going to be hit or miss.

  3. December 7, 2011 11:44 am

    The only thing worse than experience #1 would be being told “oh yeah, we have that,” without a look or thought, and then arriving to find that no, they do not. I agree that it is totally unacceptable for a local store that sells beer, wine, and liquor to not know the name of one of those items that is made within 50 miles of their location. There oughta be a law.

  4. Elyse permalink
    December 7, 2011 12:12 pm

    Not surprising. They are clueless there. Also they store their wine standing upright which is no good. We’ve had much better experiences at All Star.

  5. December 7, 2011 1:13 pm

    Sometimes it seems that the bigger the store, the less the staff know about what is inside of it. This could be easily remedied with a little education, or a break down of sections in the store that different people can become acquainted with. Instead of having everyone learn everything, have everyone specialize in something so that there –should– always be someone on staff that knows each section. Then you have to make sure that everyone knows who else works in the store…. and that involves communication.

    There is one exception to this rule, as far as I have seen…. Exit 9 has always been pretty good with helping me choose what I am looking for. I know there section managers are actually on the floor a lot offering advice… and from a distillery stand-point I have seen over 15 people from there store at the distillery learning what we do and how our products are made, so that they can better talk about them.

  6. December 7, 2011 1:35 pm

    I agree that All Star is better.

  7. Shawn permalink
    December 7, 2011 3:24 pm

    The place you speak of is about volume and price. Customer service is an afterthought. It is the only liquor store in the area that I can think of where you need to be on the look out and dodge the constant movement of restocking forklifts while shopping.

  8. December 7, 2011 7:26 pm

    “Emperor” tends to be our “go-to” place for wine when we know what we’re looking for, but I’ll agree with you, it’s no place for a novice. Even their setup can be confusing for someone who doesn’t know what he/she is looking for. I would add that the “warehouse” up the road apiece falls into a similar category, except their setup is even more confusing. I can’t speak to how knowledgeable their staff is, but the layout of the store itself doesn’t inspire confidence.

    On the other hand, All Star is fantastic for the novice wine and spirits shopper, and is usually where I send people if I know they’re looking for something and don’t know what they’re looking for. It really is the gold standard in the area, in that regard.

  9. Countess permalink
    December 7, 2011 9:02 pm

    You should forget about the big shops and go to The Wine Shop on New Scotland Ave. I think they personally taste test all of the wines they purchase. Not as much selection as the big stores, but every bottle I have gotten there is good. Really good.

  10. Andy permalink
    December 9, 2011 12:43 am

    If you can a) stomach a trip to the mall, and b) forgive them for their location (being in the mall and all) For Love of Wine in Crossgates has a wide selection of smaller run wines.

    I admit, I am a bit biased, since my wife and I are quite good friends with the owners, but they really do know their wine. :) Since you love food, and seem to know what you’re looking for, I’m sure they would love to help you find the right wine! :)

    No really, they’re not paying me, except in gratitude, and delicious french reds ;)

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