Creating a Meaningful Strategic Plan for Long Term Success

Strategic Plan

A Strategic Plan is a combination of a ten year financial plan that forecasts expenses and sales, and includes a Threats and Opportunities Assessment.   When writing this plan, start with where you want to be in ten years. Then, look at what is happening locally and globally and what impact it will have on your winery.  If you have ever written a business plan, you will find a strong correlation between the business plan and a Strategic Plan.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?  

Ask yourself some questions:  

  1. What are your sales targets?  Is production sufficient for your sales goals?  Will sales cover the income needs of the owners?
  2. Do you need to replace winery equipment, renovate the winery buildings, update the tasting room or purchase software in the next decade?
  3. Are you considering retiring or selling the business?  Is your business positioned for sale?

10 Year Financial Plan

Based on the answers to these questions, and previous years sales and expenses, you can put together a ten year financial forecast for the winery.  

What to include in the financial plan:

The idea of this plan is to be a tool that informs your decision making.  So, include all the things that will impact your future decisions. At minimum this should include:

  1. A Profit and Loss Statement – Make sure to include any extraordinary expenses like equipment purchases, construction and changes to salary expenses.
  2. A Statement of Cash Flow
  3. A Spreadsheet that details yearly wine production and sales. Note, in the wine industry these two are often different.  Include the percentage of wine that will be sold through: the tasting room, the wine club, the website, direct to restaurants and wholesale.

If you are planning on raising outside funding for capital improvements or expansion you should also include a Balance Sheet.

Threats and Opportunities Assessment

Now look at the Threats and Opportunities that can affect sales and expenses.  This is difficult and often overlooked in organizations because you are looking at things over which you have little to no control.  But, you can still layout a strategy for dealing with them. With forethought you can turn threats into opportunities, The key is to concentrate on those that will have the most significant effect on your winery, and be brief.  

Organizing threats and opportunities

Start with the broad picture and work towards local issues.  Pay the most attention to those things that 1) will have the most effect on your business and 2) that you can mitigate in some way. 

  1. Global – Is climate change going to affect your grape supply or tourism in your area?  Will your grape variety be affected by a rise in overall temperature? Will your water supply be affected?
  2. National – Will tariffs affect your revenue?  Will they substantially increase the cost of equipment and supplies?  How will a downturn in the economy affect your business?
  3. State –  How will changes in shipping laws affect your business?  Will you need to change your packaging because of new regulations?
  4. Local – How is water regulated in your county?  Are your local demographics changing?

I could continue to give examples, the list of threats and opportunities can be long.  The key is to concentrate on those that you can plan for and not get caught up in the details.

Now that you have the Strategic Plan, take some time to assess what the data actually means for your business.  You now have a lot of data.  But, data is only good if it is used to inform your decisions.  I recommend you put some of the data into graphs and charts so that you and your team can have a visual of what the numbers mean.  Your next step is to create the written plan to put your Strategic Plan into action.

The hardest Strategic Plan you make will be the first one!  The next one will be much easier. If you are a small organization you should look to revise your plan every two or three years.  If you have a large organization you should consider revising this plan on an annual basis.

Planning Strategically

White Chess Pieces on a board

Strategic Planning for Everyone

Harvest is finally over, the wines are aging, the vineyard is dormant and winery visitors are at a low point. This is a great time to think about the future and do some strategic planning. It can be hard to look long term when your business operates on a fairly consistent yearly cycle.  It can also be a bit overwhelming to start writing long term financial forecasts if you’ve not done them before. Have no fear! I’ll layout the basics for each plan here and go into depth on how to execute each plan with as little pain as possible in later blog posts. But, really, there is no substitute for planning for the future.  The time you invest in thinking about the future of your winery is well worth it. If you are not in the wine industry, this still applies to you! My examples are winery focused but are applicable to all industries and products.

Three Financial Plans
  1. Strategic Plan – A ten year plan that forecasts long term expenses and sales and strategically considers opportunities and threats.
  2. Long Range Plan – A three, or four, year plan that is driven by sales and which informs current and future winery production.
  3. Financial Plan – A one year budget that guides and tracks expenses and sales for the coming year.

Strategic Plan

The Strategic Plan is a combination of a ten year financial plan, that forecasts both expenses and sales, and a written plan that looks at the opportunities and threats to the organization.   When writing this plan you should start with where you want the organization to be in ten years. Then look at what is happening in the state, country and larger world that will affect your winery. If you have ever written a business plan, you will find a strong correlation between the business plan and a Strategic Plan.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?  To get started ask yourself some questions:  
  1. What is your ultimate sales or net income target?  For many small wineries this is where the owners salary comes from.  Is it enough to pay expenses and put away for retirement? Will all of the winery debt be covered?
  2. Do you need to make capital improvements, renovations or extensive repairs in the next decade?
  3. Are you considering retiring or selling the business?  How should the winery be positioned so that is can be sold?

Based on the answers to these questions, and previous years sales and expenses, you can put together a ten year financial forecast for the winery.

Now look at the opportunities and threats that can affect sales and expenses.  This is the hardest part of a strategic plan because you are primarily looking at things that you can’t control.  But, you can still layout a strategy for dealing with them. The key is to concentrate on the opportunities and threats that will likely have the most significant effect on your winery. Be brief.  

The hardest Strategic Plan you make will be the first one!  Next year you can update it and look at which opportunities and threats have changed.  

Long Range Plan

The Long Range Plan is a three, or four, year budgetary plan.   I think this is the hardest of the three plans because it is a combination of: how do we get to where we want to be in ten years (the Strategic Plan) and what can we actually accomplish based on our current sales?  This plan should be primarily driven by sales and forward thinking.

How do you decide if yours should be a three year or a four year plan?  

The answer depends on the products with the longest lifecycle.   The plan should encompass the entire lifecycle of the product from your initial contact through sales, and include time to make substantial changes.  

Example:  I make several reserve red wines from estate vineyards.  I barrel age the wines for 18 months and release the wines in the late fall.   

In this case I would suggest the Long Range Plan be a four year plan.  This will allow time to make changes in the vineyard that will affect the quantity and quality of the bottled wine.  If you make primarily non-aged whites, you could shorten the time to a three year plan. If this sounds complicated, I will break it out more in a post on just the Long Range Plan – stay tuned!  

The goal of this plan is to objectively look at your sales and prospective, yet realistic, sales growth and be able to make changes in your initial source – the grapes, vineyard or bulk wine – so that you are producing the amount of product that matches your sales goals.  Yes, this is easier said than done. In the wine industry we often use vineyard production or sales goals that are based solely on the year before. Making a Long Range Plan involves a change way of thinking that is more strategic and less reactionary.

Financial Plan

The Financial Plan is your one year financial budget.  If you don’t make any other plans you MUST make a Financial Plan.  This plan is the budget for your current year expenses and your forecasted sales.  Each department should develop a yearly budget based on targets from the Long Range Plan. These are brought together as the Financial Plan for the organization. This is what you should tracking on a monthly basis.  Quarterly, or yearly, this is used for reporting to ownership.

It is tempting to take year one of the Long Term Plan and call it done. But, for the Financial Plan to be really useful (And frankly if it’s not useful, why bother?) you need to break it down by month.  The reality is that expenses and revenues don’t happen at the same time. In the wine industry sales have peaks: wine club shipments and high season for the tasting room. Expenses have peaks too: bottling, barrel purchases and harvest.  Tracking these together by month will show you how cash is coming in and leaving the winery. This allows you to prepare for large outflows and can influence when you schedule wine club shipments and special events.

The first year you do a Financial Plan you will find that there are certain expenses and sales budgets that are significantly different that the actual expenses and sales.  That’s okay provided: you know why they happened and you use them to make future plans more accurate. The thing to remember is that these plans are not an exercise to take up time or make you look good.  They’re only good if they are useful! These plans should be used throughout the year to inform your decisions and help you plan strategically for the future.

Genevieve Rodgers is a winery consultant with twenty years of experience making wine and helping wineries plan for the future.

Why you should write a business plan anyway!

You’ve got a great idea!  It’s new and different!  You can do this better than anyone else!  You’re excited and ready to go! And then, someone mentions a business plan….  It’s like watching a balloon deflate.

You don’t want to write a business plan?  Well, you’re not alone. Business plans are not the fun and exciting part of starting a business.   If you google “why not to write a business plan” you will find a slew of articles and books that give reasons why business plans are a waste of time.  Some of their reasons are valid, but there are some very compelling reasons why writing a business plan will help you succeed.

Here are my top three reasons for writing a business plan:

1. It helps you define what is success to you.

2. It gives a fact based estimate of how much time and money is needed start making sales.

3. It acknowledges the risks and rewards in the venture.

But first, let’s look at what a business plan is and is not.  

What a business plan is – and is not!

A business plan is a reality check on your idea, it is not a road map to follow without deviation!   Business is no different than the rest of life.  There will be unexpected, unanticipated issues and costs that will cause you to reevaluate your plan.   What your business plan is, is a structured way for you explore both the exciting and the mundane aspects of your venture.  If at the end of writing the plan you are still jazzed, then go for it! If not, it’s time to reevaluate.  The business plan forces you to put down on paper why your idea is the next best thing and why you are the perfect person to do it, right now!  You will also put on paper the top roadblocks in your way, how much it will cost and what you need to do to get your successful outcome.  For many people, this is their first time thinking about the business side of their idea.  It can be daunting and there are a lot of pieces to a good plan. Always give it a shot, then decide if you have the expertise to write a useful plan or if you need help.  If you decide you need help there are different avenues for you: you can hire someone like me to help you, or you can download a template from an online resource.  The online resource I recommend is from Score – US Small Business Administration.

What is Success?

The most important thing a business plan does is clarifies the worth of the business.  It defines success for you and your partners. It doesn’t answer the question: Can you make this (whatever this is) better than anybody else?  It answers the question: Can you make enough money selling this to make the project a success?  The definition of success is unique to you.  For some, it means the project will pay for itself.  For others, it means it will generate enough to replace their current income.  Spend some time determining what will make the venture a success for you and the other people involved.  Ask your business partner, your domestic partner and your investor about their expectations. You may be surprised by their answers.  Once you have your definition of success, you’re ready to work on your expenses/sales forecast (otherwise known as the dreaded spreadsheets).  So, instead of forecasting how much money you can make if everything works perfectly and there are no surprises, forecast what it takes to be successful for all participants.  If you can make that work, everything else is gravy!

Starting a business takes money and time.

How much money, and how much time will it take to start your business?   These are questions your business plan needs to answer.  While it’s tempting to start by looking at how much you can sell, and consequently, how much you can make, I suggest starting by estimating how much it will cost to get started.   Once you have that, forecast what it will take to get to the success point.  Start with the bare necessities, but use market rates and costs unless you are certain you can do it yourself without sacrificing quality.  Forecast your expenses out several years, but not more than five.  For some industries, like the wines and spirits industry, you will need to pay for one to three full years of expenses before you start getting any revenue.  For a restaurant it may take 6 months before you’re doing more than just covering costs.  Can you afford it?  If not, what are your solutions?

Determining how much time it takes to start your business entails more than looking at your personal time for the project.  Many businesses, like wineries, have a yearly cycle for operations and sales. You need to know what that is and where you are in the cycle.  If you start now, are you going to be ready for harvest, or the holiday season, etc?  What happens if you miss the peak sales window?  When are the trade shows for your industry?  How long will it take to get all of your licenses?  Answering these questions will give you a better understanding of the business and make it easier for you to adapt when the unexpected happens.  Because it will.

Business is risky!

There is no sure thing.  Even the best businesses involve risk.  A business plan helps you honestly assess the risks of your proposed business.  The “risks” part of your plan highlights what you know and do well, while acknowledging your weaknesses and the information and resources you will need for success.  This is often the most difficult and underutilized part of the business plan.  You should layout what you think are the most likely risks and roadblocks to success.  Objectively analyze your competition and highlight what you will do better or differently that gives you a competitive advantage.  And, layout what you will gain when this project is successful.

If you are seeking outside funding, this is a crucial piece of your plan because you are being transparent of the financial risks involved in the venture.  After writing this section, if you are still confident in the success of your project that’s a sign to move forward.  If not, you should reevaluate your financial commitment to the project.  Can you afford to lose the money you will spend based on your projections?  And, what is the likelihood of that happening?

After writing the business plan you should have a clear plan forward.  You have looked at the risks and the rewards, determined the capital and time needed and clearly defined what success will look like for you.  Now you have something to share with friends, family and potential investors that is well thought out and clearly explains why this project is a great idea!   Use this plan as a working document.  Make changes as needed and keep track of how closely your forecasts lineup to your reality.  When you look back, you’ll find that writing the business plan was well worthwhile.

Good Luck!

Increasing accessibility of your website for the vision impaired

Sometimes what you do for a living and what you do to help your community perfectly align.  This happened when a read a recent article on Winery Websites and ADA Compliance.  For a living, I help wineries and other small businesses get started and improve.  For my community, I help people with permanent vision loss get the tools and information they need to live happier and more independent lives. The recent article on winery website usage by people with vision loss has spurred me to share how wineries, and other consumer businesses, can make simple website adjustments to better serve their online consumers.  I want to be clear though, I am not a lawyer and not dispensing legal advice. This is purely business advice stemming from my background as a winery and business consultant and as the Executive Director of Hope Vision Foundation, a non-profit that provides education and outreach to people with permanent vision loss and their families.

Why should businesses care about the vision impaired?  

Well, to be blunt, they are your consumers.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics (CDC), there are 25.5 million adults in the US who have experienced vision loss (trouble seeing even while wearing glasses or corrective lenses). This includes people who are legally blind, have a genetic disposition or disease that impairs their vision, have had significant trauma and people with low vision.  Low Vision affects nearly 3 million adults in the US, and it’s the group that Hope Vision Foundation works with the most (yes, that’s a shout out to my organization!)

Low Vision is roughly defined as permanent vision impairment that cannot be corrected with glasses or corrective lenses. The most common causes are Macular Degeneration, Retinopathy, Glaucoma and Cataracts. I specifically mention these diseases because they are common enough that you probably know someone with one or more of them. These diseases primarily affect people over 60.  Right now, the bulk of these people are Baby Boomers, but us Gen X’s are close on their heels. If you have a winery, these 25.5 million adults are definitely your customers. That is why you should care.

Information is becoming more digital

The internet has become the way we get information on companies and their products.  Consumers increasingly look for information about your company and your products online, specifically from your website and your social media.  The use of video and audio on websites is growing, but still the dominant part of just about every consumer website is visual.  For vision impaired consumers, websites can be difficult to see and navigate. But, there are some simple ways that companies can make their websites easier to navigate for people experiencing vision loss.

What can you do, easily, to increase website ease of use for the vision impaired?

  1. Change your font and/or increase the font size
  2. Increase the website contrast.
  3. Caption your pictures.
  4. Add video and audio

Assess your font

Without going into the specifics of the different eye diseases, there are some common issues for people experiencing vision loss.  First, parts of the field of vision become blurry. This has a strong effect on the ability to distinguish fonts. Script typeface fonts and thin fonts are beautiful, but because the letters are not discrete, they can are more difficult to see.  Fonts that have a heavier weight and have space between each letter are easier to make out by people with vision loss. Here’s an example that illustrates what these fonts look like to someone with vision loss. While to block type fonts is still discernible, the script type font is no longer legible.

Blurred font examples

Standard font examples

 

 

 

 

 

If changing the font is not an option, try using a larger font size.  You may be asking yourself why can’t the consumer just change the zoom on their screen? They can. But, the consumer in the group that is most likely to experience vision loss is also in the group that is the least comfortable with technology. Organizations, like Hope Vision Foundation, are trying to change this through education, but it is still the reality for most consumers in this age group.

 

Increase the contrast

The second common issue for people experiencing vision loss is difficulty distinguishing between objects of similar contrast.  In the context of a website, contrast pertains to things that are similar hue (color)

High Contrast Color Example

or value (brightness). Using color combinations that are high contrast, and using high contrast photos will make your website easier to see.  The best high contrast combination is black and white. But there are others that work well if you are looking for color.

 

Caption all of your pictures and provide descriptions

Providing captions and descriptions for your photos is an easy and often missed step when posting on a website.  Captions and descriptions are read by screen readers and accessibility aids on computers, smartphones and tablets.  These provide the vision impaired with a complete picture of your website. If you link to other pages through your product pictures, full descriptions allow them to more easily navigate through your website.  This is very easy to do to existing photos on your site through the edit photo option. An added bonus is it increases your SEO rating for your site.  A word about flash: Flash can be a great addition to your website, but screen readers can’t read it making navigating your page difficult for people who are blind and rely on screen readers to access the internet.

Add in video and audio

The beauty of a website is that it is not static.  Websites are easily changed, interactive and can engage both our visual and auditory senses.  So the question is, are you using all it has to offer? One way to do this is through the use of video. If you have tasting notes, then add tasting videos. Add a quick tour of the winery, tank room or barrel room.  Take a virtual tour of the vineyards. There are lots of easy ways to add video and increase the experience your website provides to both your sighted and vision impaired consumers.

I hope this has given you some ideas and simple tools to increase the accessibility of your website for the vision impaired.   For more information, or if you have questions, please contact me.

Making Barrel Tasting Weekend Work for You

As I sat down to write this blog I realized IT’S BEEN A YEAR!  It’s hard to believe that it has been that long, the year went fast.  So, what have I been doing this last year?  For the most part I’ve been taking care of a new baby.  Matteo was born in July.  He’s a wonderful little boy, who has also been very needy.  But, now that he’s 8 months old, it’s time for me to go back to work.  I’ve missed it.

So, here is the first installment of the New Year.

Russian River Barrel Tasting Weekend is upon is once again, this weekend and the next.  The next two weekends will bring scores of wine tasters to the area, rain or shine.  They come to sample the new wine in barrel, taste the new releases, get sloshed, party and hopefully even purchase.  It’s always a question for wineries – Is barrel tasting weekend worth it?  On the one hand sales are up during the event.  People do come and buy wine, both current releases and futures.  For some wineries this will be the sales peak for the winter.  But, it comes at a price.   Even the smallest winery will pour though several cases of wine each weekend, food will be provided, extra staff will be on hand, barrels will be opened.  And, as always happens, at the end of the day there will be a barrage of fairly toasted consumers looking for that last place to land for a final drink.  So with all the cost and frustration involved is it worth it?

Yes!

Barrel tasting weekend is a great time to reconnect with consumers you haven’t seen in a while.  For some consumers this is the seminal event that brings them back to wine country.  So, this is the time to reestablish those relationships that keep your customers coming back time and again.  It’s also the time to make new relationships.  If ever there was a time to get emails and sign people up for your mailing list and newsletter – this is it!  So, how do you do that with the scores of people coming in?  Have a raffle!  Everyone loves to win something, so raffle off one thing every day.  While it is a bit tricky to raffle off wine (technically you can’t give it for free) you can be creative.  Have a designated greeter at the door and hand a raffle card to every person that comes in.  The card needs to ask for their name, email and phone and should include a box to check if they want to receive emails from you and your newsletter.  Don’t use this as an opportunity to spam.  You will be surprised how many sign ups you do get.  Then, and this is really important, FOLLOW UP with an email after the event.  Send an email thanking people for coming to your winery.  Send them a special discount for wine and start building the relationships that will turn them into long term customers.

Yes, you can make barrel tasting weekend work for you but you have to be creative and put in the extra work for the long term rewards.

When Wine Club Members Cancel

There was a lively discussion on Twitter last week about what to do for wine club members that are dropping out due to changes in their economic situation. Since I just wrote about what wineries can do to help retain wine club members, I thought this would be a good follow up topic. So what can a winery do when members call to cancel?

When a wine club member calls to cancel a membership it is important that the person answering that phone call be understanding of the difficult situation in which people find themselves. This sounds like an obvious statement, but too often winery staff seem to take personal affront to a membership drop. It is hard enough for people to call and acknowledge a situation they may find embarrassing. The last thing they need is a wine club manager haranguing them. It’s not personal; it’s just life. What is most important is that the winery keeps the wine club member as an active customer. This means at minimum keeping the customer on the email list and informed of winery events and sales.

Vintner Jeff Stai at Twisted Oak (@ElJefeTwisted on Twitter) goes even further. He gives wine club members who may think they need to drop their membership the option of retaining their wine club perks while temporarily suspending their shipments. This is a great way to hang on to good customers and it keeps them in the loop for winery sales and events. Eventually the economy will turn around and the customers with whom you are still in contact will be your best bet as returning wine club members before you even reach out to new customers.

Another thing that a winery can do when a member drops out is to send a personal note and some kind of gift from the winery. Travessia Urban Winery’s Marco Montez (@Travessia on Twitter) sends a bottle of wine with his note thanking them for having been a part of the club and hoping to see them in the future. Wow! Now that is caring customer service. The personal contact made by a hand-written note is important in keeping a good relationship with the customer, especially if the cancellation is due to financial hardship. For a large winery that is experiencing a significant attrition, sending a bottle of wine may be cost-prohibitive, but there are other options. The gift of a simple logo corkscrew can be just as effective. The most important part is that the note be hand-written, person-to-person, and that it conveys the good wishes of the winery.

Above all, keep in touch with your former wine club members whenever possible. Don’t forget to still include them in the life of the winery with party invites, email updates, birthday and anniversary contacts, and the occasional “Hope things are going well” note. Just because someone cancels a wine club membership does not mean that they no longer drink wine or they don’t want to continue to enjoy yours. A former wine club member can still be a great customer.

The Dos and Don’ts of Discounting

I recently spoke to a number of wineries that participated in the annual “Winter Wineland” event sponsored by the Russian River Wine Road. I wanted to get a sense of how wine consumers are spending this year. The responses I got were fairly consistent. “Turnout is down, but sales are up.” This prompted me to ask the question, “Why were sales up?” The answer – strong discounts. Of course! This makes sense. Wine lovers are still wine lovers, but everyone is feeling the pinch to save money so discounts are a natural fit. But, is this good for the winery? Before answering this question, it’s important to explore what prices mean to consumers and how it affects their view of a wine.

Most wineries are now aware of how bottle price affects consumers’ perception of quality. If this is news to you, check out this study from Stanford. This poses a particular question. What affect does discounting have on consumers’ perception of quality? Here is my answer: In a free market economy, consumers perceive the lowest average price to be the right price. I use lowest average price because consumers see “blowouts” and going-out-of-business sales as fundamentally business-based and not a reflection of quality. The price from a winery or from a regular retailer is considered a correct price and reflects the true quality of a wine. Therefore, when a winery discounts its wines on a regular basis, the discounted price becomes the right price and the perception of quality is diminished. This can have long term effects on winery pricing, making it very difficult to then sell the same wine at the pre-discounted price. What is a winery to do in these times that cash flow is so very tight and consumers are looking for bargains?

Give discounts on non-wine charges. The biggest non-wine cost to consumers is the cost of shipping. Giving a discount on shipping protects your bottle price and gives concrete savings to consumers. Consumers know that wineries have little control over shipping costs, so sharing part of the cost puts you in partnership with your customers and lets them know that you are conscious of the extra money they spend to get your wine; we are all in this together. There are different ways to give shipping discounts and the method the winery uses should be based on where the bulk of their customers are located and which customers they want to target. A percentage discount is the easiest from the winery standpoint but gives a better deal to customers that are farther away and may not be perceived as such a value to consumers that are close by or in-state. Another option is to give one discount for in-state sales and another for out of state. While a little more difficult to set up this allows the winery to better target its customers. And don’t forget the value of the word FREE. While the TTB strongly frowns on the word free used in connection with wine, it’s a great tool for non-wine incentives.

Discount Older Vintages. Cleaning out the cellar is a good way to generate cash flow. Consumers generally accept that wineries change their prices slightly with new vintages. Discounting older vintages – even if it is just last year’s – has little effect on the quality perception of current release wines. Since wine is perceived to get better with age, consumers see added value in a wine that has been cellared at the winery. By all means, use discounts on older vintages to generate cash flow.

Connect Discounts to Events. If cash flow is a must have, and the previous two ideas have been tried, then the only option is to discount current wines. The key to this is to connect the discount to a particular event and give the discount an ending date. By connecting the discount to an event the winery can attempt to disconnect the discount from wine quality. This can work as long as the winery provides a strong cutoff date for the sales ending and does not follow the sale event with another sale event. There are many options for sales events in the coming month – Valentines Day, Lunar New Year, Presidents Day, etc. So, get out the calendar and plan your sales events. To make a good event it’s important to let your customers know in advance that you’ll be having a sale. Planning ahead is key.

Even in the uncertainty of the current economy it is possible for wineries to generate good cash flow while protecting the integrity of brand pricing.

Wine Clubs in a Weakening Economy

As a big fan of wine clubs, I’m always amazed when I speak with wineries that don’t offer a wine club option to their tasting room clients. Recently, I’ve been hearing more and more wineries down-playing their wine clubs and deciding not to push club memberships. They are concerned that in a weakening economy people will not want to add to their financial burden. Wineries are concerned that consumers will quit the club just as quickly as they join. There is some cause for concern as wineries are certainly experiencing a higher than usual drop out rate. However, there are still some things that you can do.

First, a case for continuing a robust wine club:  Wine clubs are a winery’s best source for high margin cash flow. It is your club. You have to ability to set shipment dates that meet your cash needs. A February or March shipment brings in much needed cash when tasting room sales are low. Wine club shipments provide direct contact with customers who are not regular tasting room visitors. Let’s face it, most tasting room customers are tourists. They’ve come to the area on vacation or to visit local friends. In a weekend trip, they may have visited 8 to 10 wineries. But, your winery stood out and they signed up for your club. Now you need to remind them why you were special. Wine club members are your best supporters. People like to share their special finds with friends and they will often bring their shipments to parties where they can talk about your winery. This is the absolute best type of advertising and exposure that a winery can get. You’ll often find these people will then seek out your tasting room when they visit. If your wines are in distribution, being “top of mind” from a friend’s recommendation provides one more reason for people to chose your wine from a list or pick it up off of a shelf.  Wine club shipments lead to follow up sales. A typical wine club shipment gives the customer one bottle of two to four different wines. So once the wines are tasted, and enjoyed, the winery has the opportunity to entice the consumer to purchase a bottle of two of their favorites. If you don’t think this works, please think again. An average winery will get 100% of the wine club shipment price in follow up sales over the course of a year. But, this only holds true if the winery follows up with targeted emails and/or phone calls.

So now that you have a Wine Club, how can you keep your customers? The key to holding on to wine club customers is connecting with them on a personal level and letting them know that they are special. This isn’t meant to be corny. Wine club members are the most important customers for a winery and they need to know that you value their membership. Send them a gift. This is the time to acknowledge a birthday, or if you don’t keep birthdays in your records, the anniversary of their joining the wine club. A small gift like a printed corkscrew is a nice surprise that lets your customers know that they’re not just numbers to you. You can include a special discount coupon for that month as an incentive to visit the website and make an on-line purchase. Release a Library Wine to the wine club. Members-Only sales give added value to being a wine club member. Every wine club gives a discount, but to stand out you need to add extra value to the membership.  When people are looking at which memberships they’re going to keep, you want to stay on that list.  Send regular, targeted emails. These days, people have a lot of junk coming into their emails and you don’t want your emails to become part of the junk. Sending emails on a regular basis, whether that be once a month or once a quarter, allows people to anticipate your emails so that they don’t get lost. Targeted emails are more likely to be opened and acted upon. Personalize the shipments this year. You want to connect with your customers and remind them that you’re not just a company, but a group of people. One on the best ways to do that is to include a personal note with the shipment. Now if you have a lot of customers you may have to go with a pre-printed letter, but make sure each is hand signed. Also, if you don’t already include tasting notes and a recipe with the shipment, this is a good time to add those so that you can again add value to the shipment.

I hope this helps you take a new look at your wine club. A down economy doesn’t have to mean a drop off in wine club sales. You’ll need to put in some extra effort, but it will pay off in spades.

Are You A Niche Leader?

I was at WITS – the Wine Industry Technology Symposium – last week when one of the Speakers in the General Session implored the audience to be “a niche leader.” This got me thinking: What does that really means, and how do you do it?

I decided to start with the definition of niche, specifically niche market which is the business context for niche. Wikipedia defines a niche market as “a focused targetable portion of the market.” Focused and targetable. This is really the key for most businesses. I want to concentrate on focused because I find that many businesses are deplorably unfocused, with only have a vague definition of what they do. This leaves the core business open to interpretation and can lead to poor and scattered use of precious resources. You’ve seen these businesses, they always have a “new project” in the works, but their projects never quite deliver expected results. The problem is that by leaving their business definition vague, they haven’t defined what they don’t do. They end up running after the “Idea-du-Jour”, only to find that their limited resources are stretched too thin. When that idea does not immediately solve the problem as they had hoped, they are on to the next one. The remedy is simple, just not easy.

I recommend starting by answering these questions:

1. What are the strengths of your core personnel, specifically your owners?

2. What can you offer that is unique?

3. What are you passionate about?

4. Are you driven by quality or by price?

Once you’ve answered these questions you should have the frame work of a business definition. Now you need to focus. Think about your resources, both financial and personnel and make a determination of what you can do better than your competition. Are you a great winemaker, a good grower, are you cash strapped or flush, are you innovative or technologically astute? If you need, rank your strengths and focus on the top two or three. Great businesses are driven by their owners’ passion. How can you express that passion in your business? If your passion has no relationship to your business, this is a good time to rethink your business. And the last question, how will your decisions be driven? This is a choice people are loath to make, but it is a necessary one and one best made upfront. I am not saying that quality and price are mutually exclusive, but there comes a point in every business where you must decide which will take precedence, the price (both the cost and the price to consumer) or the quality.

When you have your answers focused into a concise message you’re ready to think about your target market, but that is another post.

Your Brand is Key

In the wine industry we have a tendency to focus on what’s in the bottle and forget about what’s on the bottle. There is a romantic view of wine that’s centered on our experience with the contents of the wine glass. This can lead us to discount the importance of the brand and its packaging. But, wineries do so at their peril. Now, I’m not going to suggest that the utmost of care is not important in making a wine. But, I am going to suggest that as much time and effort should be spent caring for the brand as is spent caring for the wine.

Before I go farther I want to clarify what I see as the “Brand”. The brand to me is everything the consumer contacts that is not liquid. This includes: the name, label, packaging, pricing, press releases, take-aways, the winery and tasting room, the website and the people who represent the brand. All of these go toward the consumers’ image of your brand. Taking proper care of your brand is no small feat, but the rewards are great.

The first step in caring for your brand is determining your brands persona. This is the image of your brand that will dictate all of your branding decisions. Pay special attention to how this persona relates to the owners or key players in the winery and how it speaks to your target market. Is this brand hip and cutting edge, or is it a classic beauty? Is the brand green and eco-friendly, or high end luxury? The brand persona must reflect the values of your target market.

The next step is getting the brand to stick in the minds of your consumers. This is the key to repeat sales. To do this your message must be consistent. Everything in print and on the internet should be based on the same template – the format, colors, font, writing style, logo and slogan all must be consistent. Your packaging should reflect your brands persona. A cutting edge brand has a cutting edge label and can use non-traditional closures, while a classic beauty should have a traditional cork closure and classic label. And, your tasting-room and events should speak to the persona of the brand. All of these combine to make a brand “stick.” If one of them is inconsistent the consumer is turned off and confused.

Your brand is key to repeat customers. A good brand will always be at the tip of the consumers tongue and instead of googling “black cherry, hint of tobacco, great night out with lover” to find your wine, your consumer will be able to google your brand.