Saturday, September 19, 2009

Changing Hats

It was disorienting walking into the store and stepping behind the counter for the first time. I've perused the shelves many times before as a customer. Now it's my job. Well... part of it.

I recently joined CoolVines, a 2-year old specialty wine store with branches in Westfield, and Princeton, NJ. My official job description is business development and operations research, but in a small company you have to wear many hats. Besides data-crunching and strategy planning, I've manned the counter, stocked shelves, and helped with tasting/selection. In the process, I got up close and personal with some of the most intractable problems in wine retail.

Our store manager said it right: "Retail is DETAIL. It's simple, but not easy." It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde cycle: When a customer comes in, dig up and awaken your inner wine lover. Every time a customer leaves, turn into an OCD psychopath.

Another dichotomy is that of a wine lover/professional. Ever since Lord Parker rose to prominence on a Nader-esque crusade against conflict-of-interest, amateur wine lovers have been wary of professionals. And rightly so. No other industry profits from as much bullshit as the wine industry does. To borrow a term from Scott Adams, the wine business is a "confusopoly" - making money from people's confusion.

But hopefully this will change. With the proliferation of superb blogs like WLTV and Vinography, consumers are better informed. Parker and Wine Spectator, despite their vague aura of evilness, do their part to herald new wine regions and producers. In the meanwhile, it may come as some consolation that retailers are often just as confused as customers.