Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Hare Today - Gone to Merlot" or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Shelf-Talkers

While many wine lovers are trekking off to exotic lands to experience the grape harvest, I am deep into the holiday selling season. The traditional O-N-D (October-November-December) selling season has added an “S” (for September), and now it is the “S-O-N-D” season. Every year I get wound up and this year is no different. But for some reason, I sense when this one is put to bed, it will mark an important crossroad in my work life. I don’t want to miss a moment. I love the competition, I love to win, still have fire in my belly, even though to many of the young’uns around me, I am pretty much invisible. That’s OK; I know how to do invisible real well.

In the ‘80’s, I really had to scrape and struggle for every box of wine. I was a single dad, there was no internet, hell, even Parker had little or no influence at the time. I had to pay my mortgage, my car payment, my credit card, and I had to make sure there was food on the table (and savings in the bank for college) for a young son. I didn’t have the luxury of being complacent. I had to get after it.

I say this not just as one who is looking back over a long career (40 years, next year). A little over a week ago I worked late into the night during the weekend and also the Friday and Monday that bookended that weekend. I was making shelf talkers for a client. It was one of those déjà vu moments when I looked up and saw what time it was. For years (and I mean “years”) after my son was asleep in bed, I’d get out my pens and paper and art brushes and I’d make individual shelf talkers for the placements I’d made that day. The TV blared, with a very young David Letterman, while I made them. I worked for a small company; no one knew anything about our “brands.” They reality was, they weren’t brands, they were placements sitting on a retail shelf. I had to find a way to move them.

An "original"
When I made shelf talkers one by one, it was always frustrating when I’d go back to the store a week later and see my shelf talker gone or even worse, doodled on, sometimes with a vulgar image (think penis) courtesy of the competition. At one time, I almost had to go outside and beat the crap out of one of the salespersons (until the manager put an end to them tearing down my shelf talkers). Yeah, it was a battleground – all to sell a “fighting Chardonnay” or a bottle of Chianti. Keeping the world safe for Italian (or any) wine wasn’t a passive spectator sport – there could be blood.

Over the years, copying machines became cheaper to use (this was before personal computers) and so I’d copy in black and white and fill in with colored pens (I still have them and use them). And when I found out about laminating machines, my life changed. They extended the life of a shelf talker by months. I just had to find a way to attach them so they didn’t “fall off” the shelf.

One store I called on, an upscale supermarket in a wealthy area of town, when I inherited the account from the previous salesman (who was promoted) we were selling about $10,000 a month. Not bad then (or now). Over the period of 3 years I took those sales to $25,000 a month ($300,000 a year), and I have to say it was mainly due to the wine buyer letting me use creative shelf takers (and I also returned his adult videos back to the store for him, which I’m sure his wife was very appreciative of). Yeah, I worked long and hard and beat the hell out of my young body.
Around the age of 40 I realized I couldn’t be lifting boxes every day. Funny, because the week before last, for the items I made new shelf talkers for, I also promised the wine buyer I’d “reset” the sections where the new wines were going in an organized and fair manner (I’m pretty damn good at resets) . So I moved a lot of boxes (and bottles). Good thing my ballet training (in university) set me up to have good balance on ladders. But my physical body is older than it was 25 years ago – Alas, it happens to all of us, that even in good shape, the parts get old. At least that’s what my 101 year old mom tells me.

The real point of shelf talkers, as I see it (and as a way of extending the conversation from last week’s post) is to give a candid, personal recommendation for the wine to the person who is reading it. Like I said, when I started this, Parker & Company (Wine Spectator, etc.) didn’t have the influence they grew to have (and still do for many people). I’ve utilized scores in some of the recent shelf talks, if only to offer a window into an area of critical expertise, not as a substitute. And then I’ve also made talkers that were only reviews. Those work for certain people, but I always feel a little let down when I make ones like those.

I also tried a psychological experiment with numbers. I came up with a shelf talker with the heading “100 Italian wines to fall in love with” and made sure the number “100” was red and large. It was like a red cape to a bull – worked great. The competitors hate it (probably because it wasn’t their idea). The reality is one must read all the words, not just scan. And then the rest of the story will tell the potential buyer what the wine is about. But it’s the attraction that we are looking for – to bring someone in closer so we can get them to fall in love with this wine.

I had a consumer come up to me in a store once, where that shelf talker hangs. “Can I help you?” I asked. “I’m looking for that 100 wine,” the customer said. To this day I doubt they saw past the bright large red number.

Comedy and sarcasm, I have found, does well on a shelf talker. I also learned that women read the whole thing, to the point of not wanting to be distracted. I once went up to a lady in a store where some of my shelf talkers were hanging and asked her if I could help her. “No thank you, these hanging cards tell me everything I need to know.” Like a proud papa, my babies were working. It was a great moment, a moment that confirmed that someone listens, even if they don’t realize they do.

My favorite shelf talker? Hard to say, but I’d have to put my Hare Today-Gone to Merlot one (at the top). I’ve re done it for so many wines – it just works, really well.

One that worked really well for a colleague was E.T., with his finger pointing to the words, “Out of this world,” and then with the wine description below. I’ve redone that one for the 21st century, but my colleague (and later my competitor, still a friend) would make thousands of dollars using that on his shelf talkers – to the exclusion of any other shelf talker. You could go into a famous liquor store near downtown Houston and see hundreds of shelf talkers with E.T. proclaiming “Out of this world” on copying paper that had been copied many times. To the point that the image was almost not there. But this guy was (and is) a super salesman and his loyal following knew that if he put that “E.T – out of this world” talker on a wine they’d know it was OK to buy it. Like I said, he made thousands. I know they work.

In today’s’ world where we have such a disjointed affair with experts and peer recommendation, mixed in with our own personal preferences (and degrees of expertise) it’s humbling to know these little efforts still work for people who aren’t living inside the wine bubble. They just want to know (in 2015 as well as in 1985) what they can take home and enjoy tonight.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Unknown said...

I love that' you've kept your shelf talkers. I took pride in hand-writing mine when I was a buyer at a grocery store. I also wrote my name at the bottom so customers knew it came from me. Writing them definitely helped me with my blog and developing my style.

I also had to chuckle about the laminator. One of my favorite sales reps was well-known for her fantastic shelf-talkers that she laminated. I dubbed her "The Laminator".

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Jamison....

funny thing about the laminator - at work I've been called the "Laminator Terminator" because lately I have sent several of them to their untimely demise..

Yeah, for some reason, I saved many of my old shelf talkers (and the templates) - and often recycle them or find inspiration from them for new ones. Funny, I never thought about if they influenced my blog writing, but I'm sure they had to have, as they came before. thanks for chiming in, hope you're doing OK said...

Love the story, Al. I never knew about this other creative side of your work. You should definitely do something with the shelf talkers in the future. They tell a story in their own right.

Love you, Sis

Daniel said...

I'm jealous that your handwriting is legible enough that you can actually use it. Mine is a disaster so I much prefer being able to type on a keyboard.
sometimes you have to use the acclaim, but I wish people would rather hear the stories and personal recommendation rather than the opinion of someone they will never meet from a magazine far away.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Daniel,

actually my handwriting is horrendous. I bought some calligraphy pens and trained myself to write legibly ....But you're right about the personal stories - they're always a good alternative. thanks for the kind comment.

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