60 seconds with...Matthew Johnson, Sr. V P. National Sales - OPICI WINES + MARKET ST SPIRITS

How was the re-opening of your business and how was it carried out in line with safety procedures put in place to allow social distancing? 

The wine & spirits industry was never completely shut down but where we saw shutdowns were restaurants, airline travel, distributor work with, cruise ships, tourism, etc.  These segments have slowly started to reopen, and we are seeing restrictions in capacity, mandatory mask use, etc. 

The biggest change has been online ordering/curb side pickup for retail and a massive increase in outdoor dining space/capacity for restaurants. 

 Some cities have shutdown streets to allow more dining tables outdoors while others have taken over parking lots for local restaurants.  The cities and towns that are working together with business owners are seeing restaurants survive while the cities that are not doing so, are at risk of massive permanent closures.   

My team, that has been allowed to work in the market with distributor sales reps, have been following along in separate cars, wearing masks and going into stores/restaurants only when invited in and announced.

How is the general feeling and feedback from your team members and your customers now the lockdown is over?

The general feedback is that we have a long way to go to be back to the new normal. 

We have many states in the USA that have not reopened or are just reopening now at very limited capacity. 

We are seeing retail growth slow from the April/May highs and restaurant business slowly coming back as outdoor dining is happening all over.   

The true test will be once the weather cools down this fall/winter in many states, and how the outdoor dining will evolve and adapt. 

We may still see less indoor dining, as customers are apprehensive, but may see more heated outdoor space that lasts deep into fall and into early winter. 

Ultimately the impact in the United States will be felt for much longer, we will see shifts in where business is happening, declines in tourist hotspots and major cities while suburban/rural towns will have increases in business as residents stay local.

What role has technology played in supporting your re-opening plan?

Every company in the wine & spirits industry, from distributor to supplier, has had to quickly embrace videoconferencing, virtual wine dinners, virtual educational seminars and online accessibility for our customers. 

We are no different and have shifted quickly to making everything we have available online, from product books, educational tools, point of sale material, etc. 

We are doing all of our distributor review meetings virtually and have weekly video calls with our team across the country. 

Most of our team was remote already, so it made it easier, but we had to quickly adapt for our winery owners across the world and our smaller distributors with limited use of technology pre-pandemic.

What market trends are you seeing since re-opening?

We are seeing, obviously, a very substantial uptick in retail business. 

We are also seeing large format packaging growing strong (3L box specifically), people are consuming more but trading down to value driven wine, consumers gravitating towards known brands (and varietals) and less shopping for smaller unknown brands. 

We are also seeing consumers going back to shopping for highly rated wines and a very big increase in online purchasing/delivery.

What techniques have you used to build sales and re-engage customers?

We have re-focused our team’s attention to the granular details.  We are strategically spending our time, money and attention on what specific categories/wines that are working and are the most important to us.  We are focusing heavily on defining what sku’s need to be sold in retail and what sku’s still have on premise potential.  We are working closely with distributor sales teams to make sure we are spending our valuable time in places that high potential return and not trying to go everywhere.  The rest of this year is about us building close partnerships with business that will work with us towards a common goal.  We are also making sure we are providing all the tools our customers need to help promote our wines, floor display pieces, digital shelf talkers, digital winery brochures, digital educational seminars, etc. 

What positive lessons do we need to learn from what the industry has been through?

Ultimately, we have seen the wine industry quickly jump into the 21st century and embrace technology. 

In many markets, technology was considered a luxury, it is now seen as a necessity and that is good for the industry. 

We have also seen smaller companies embracing business intelligence and strategy more than just going out and selling everything to everyone. 

 That is also a very important shift in the industry and identifying opportunities with trends, and constantly reviewing those trends, is crucial to a company’s sustained growth, no matter how big or small they are. 

As a frequent traveller, it has also been very nice to see videoconferencing happening in virtually every state.  I certainly still believe in looking someone in the eye and having face to face meetings but it’s very nice to be able to meet with 3 or 4 states in one day, something that never would have been possible pre-pandemic. 

The industry has been forced to look closely at what we are doing and how we are doing it and that is never a bad thing. 

I ultimately believe that we have implemented changes that will stay with us far beyond any pandemic. 

The companies, and leaders, that have stayed visible, taken care of their employees and over communicated to their teams and customers will be rewarded in the end, I truly believe that. 

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Date Published: 16th September 2020