The latest limited-edition release of Jack Daniels. A wine from a relatively unknown Loire Appellation in France. A selection of over a dozen mescals from Mexico. Blackwell’s Wine & Spirits has built its niche as San Francisco’s go-to store for the eclectic and the hard-to-find bottles.
And word has spread not just amongst its local customers, but abroad, with orders coming in from the UK, across Western Europe, and Asia.
“What is new and unusual does well in San Francisco,” says owner Gary Blackwell.
Blackwell is happy to give the people what they want. In fact, he has built his business by listening to customer needs and sourcing rare products to fill requests whenever he can. As a self-described hobbyist of wine, Blackwell is a fan of the “obscure or far-left-field, cult-like sorts of things.”
In 2004, Gary and Dita Blackwell were leading successful finance careers in San Francisco. The husband-and-wife team shared a passion for wine and felt an urge to get out of corporate America. When an opportunity arose to purchase a defunct liquor store in an ideal neighborhood, they jumped at the opportunity, quickly purchasing a liquor license and working to refurbish the space.
“The worst day at my job running my own business is better than the best day that I had in finance. I really like being my own boss and having an impact on my bottom line,” says Blackwell.
In its 12 years since opening, Blackwell’s Wine & Spirits has survived the recession — a time when buying a bottle of Bordeaux was simply out of the question — along with the era of online shopping and the constant influx of alcohol trends, both old and new. What’s kept this family owned specialty store relevant after more than a decade is its owner’s savvy business logic and ability to effectively listen to customers needs. With a wealth of knowledge, we’ve highlighted some of Blackwell’s key learnings from his career in the alcohol industry thus far.
Know Thy Customer
Blackwell trains all of his staff to assume that the customer knows more than they do when it comes to wine and spirits. The people of San Francisco are up to date on their food and beverage knowledge and have come to see Blackwell’s as the place to source that elusive bottle.
The Blackwells have tailored their offerings to suit these sophisticated San Francisco tastes. This means you won’t find any run-of-the-mill brands that could be purchased at your local Albertson’s or Walmart. Instead, expect to find a sharp selection of 1,500 to 2,000 bottles of artisanal and craft products, including wines from far-flung destinations like Turkey and Greece, and a wide selection of bourbons and whiskies.
Creating such a niche for their business is what has kept customers returning.
“The latest and greatest really drives customer interest,” says Blackwell.
To assist customers in finding exactly what they’re after, the sales team greets guests armed with an iPad to help guide them through their selection. It’s a high-tech touch the sales team loves to use, and it plays into the tech atmosphere of the Golden Gate city.
“I think in a town like San Francisco, there is an acknowledgement that the experience is going to be tech savvy and cool. People like that,” says Blackwell.
To further engage with customers, Blackwell’s Wine & Spirits holds wine tastings every Saturday. Typically six wines will be poured under a theme, which could be wines from a specific region or a comparison of different appellations. Recent themes included a Burgundy tasting and a West Coast offering of pinot noirs from Oregon to California. Blackwell says many regulars attend these weekly events, which are a great way to introduce consumers to new wines they may not have considered. Ultimately, the tastings help maintain customer engagement and drive sales.
Purchase According to Trends
Blackwell stays up to date on alcohol trends to give his customers exactly what they’re looking for. When he and his wife opened in 2004, that happened to be aged scotch, cognacs, and more traditional, high-market wines such as Bordeaux and cabernets. Now, it could be wines from Turkey or Greece, or eclectic spirits from Eastern Europe. Blackwell always has an ear to the ground, actively scanning spirit appreciation groups on Facebook and trying new wines from suppliers to keep his offerings current.
Like fashion trends, consumer alcohol tastes are impacted by economic climates and pop culture. Blackwell describes pinot noir spiking in popularity after the 2004 release of Alexander Payne’s film, Sideways.
“There was a movie that came out just as we opened that was called Sideways and it was about pinot noir in the central coast. It wasn’t about wine, but it was a huge feature in the movie. Everyone was suddenly interested in pinot noir and it lasted for a couple of years. Things like that happen,” says Blackwell.
While Sideways impacted Blackwell’s business for a number of years, he still feels an impact from the 2008 recession even today. The recession drastically impacted customer buying preferences and made buyers skeptical of higher-priced items.
“The great recession made Americans more savvy. It has been over for years, but at least in this industry, I feel the effects lingering. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that the wine market needed a dose of reality,” says Blackwell.
This translates to some marquee brands selling slower, with fewer bottles being purchased. Blackwell says he felt he had to experiment with new marketing initiatives every six months to maintain sales, whether it was in-store events, pop-ups, social media, or an in-house blog. Blackwell tried it all at least once with mixed success.
Since the recession, the one spirit that has exploded in popularity is bourbon. Sweeter than scotch and more affordable than many other spirits, demand has continued to rise. As such, Blackwell’s Wine & Spirits carries over 50 different kinds of bourbon and ryes to meet demand. The American spirit has become so popular that Blackwell says the trend has had even more of an impact on his business than the recession or the advent of online purchasing.
“What’s happened in the bourbon industry in America is wild,” says Blackwell. “Three years ago, there was just an explosion and interest in it. I would say it is the number one spirit we sell.”
The Online Advantage
It turns out that the popularity of bourbon isn’t uniquely a North American fascination. Blackwell says that he receives at least one to two international orders a day from countries such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, frequently filing requests for bourbons and whiskies. When a special release spirit comes available, orders increase significantly.
So how does a guy in London or Rome find out about a family owned business in San Francisco? The store’s far-flung customer base is all thanks to online advertising. Blackwell uses Google ads in targeted Western European countries to get the word out about his business. He also advertises locally about hard-to-find bottles which could be available at your favorite restaurant but not at the local liquor store. Trial and error is how he has found success with online advertising.The Blackwells started using Shopify just under two years ago and saw their online sales grow from being under half of their business to now accounting for two thirds of their business. While most of their orders are coming from the U.S., international orders are steady and they’re often larger (and more expensive) orders. According to Blackwell, international consumers feel that if they are paying for the high cost of shipping, it’s worth getting a few extra bottles.
“You have to just sit down, get it going, and experiment to find what works for you. If it’s not working for you, you cut it quickly. I have had several conference calls with Google, they are pretty good about that, they help to walk you through it. They may or may not know your specific business but the best thing you can do is experiment. Not everything works and not everything is cost efficient,” says Blackwell.
Authenticity Trumps All
When reading reviews of Blackwell’s Wine & Spirits, something that’s always mentioned is the passion its sales team demonstrates when assisting customers. “Geeking out” is a frequently used term to describe employees obsession with the products. This enthusiasm translates to the store’s email marketing, which is sent out to regular customers who sign up in store.
Blackwell writes all the copy for the e-blasts, with a light and fun tone to let loyal customers know what’s new and coming soon. Rather than using stock images from wine companies, Blackwell uses his own product shots for the e-blasts and website, staging the bottles and ensuring proper lighting is always used. The result is a clean, easy-to-scroll through page with beautiful photographs to help grab attention when that email message lands in customers inboxes.
“We have a very high open rate — [and] a high click rate. At least that’s what MailChimp tells me. I try to keep it interesting, try to have good pictures in the email, and maintain an accurate database. I try not to spam people and don’t send emails to customers who aren’t interested,” says Blackwell.
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Most subscribers get an email once or twice a month to keep them up to date with new products, especially when it comes to limited release spirits and wines. Blackwell maintains both the e-blasts and social media consistently to keep his customers attention, but is careful not to overdo it.
“It’s a fine line. Don’t you hate getting stale emails everyday? So, you don’t do that, but if you only send one email every six months, then they are going to forget about you. So you just have to develop your own touch and your own style,” he says.
As for tips for other business owners looking to keep their customers attention, Blackwell suggests keeping copy as tight as possible and stay true to your own voice.
“I write everything. It’s not fancy — it’s just me and my voice and that’s the best way to go with it. Just keep in mind you don’t want to spam people, that’s the worst thing that you can do.”
At the core of Blackwell’s success is being an attentive owner. As rents in San Francisco rise, he says that there are few fine wine stores left in the city. Pricey rents, paired with stringent rules and regulations surrounding the sale of alcohol, don’t make San Francisco an easy city to do business in, but Blackwell’s Wine & Spirits has persevered.
“You really have to be on the ball. It has to be an actively managed business. You can’t be an absentee owner,” says Blackwell.
With a key eye for spotting opportunity and a strong ability to adapt, Blackwell has proved that he is indeed on the ball as Blackwell’s Spirits & Wines continues to experience ongoing success.