The craft of selling

Personal touch crucial to craft beer, wine and spirits success says Onker

Neil Taylor, wholesale channel controller for Whyte & Mackay, left, and awards event host Craig Hill, right, present the Licensed Retailer of the Year Award to Ryan Harley and Onker Singh of Maxwells, Pollokshields

HAND selling, that’s the motto at Maxwells, Pollokshields where communicating with the customer is at the heart of the store’s success – and it’s a necessity for a shop with such a vast range.

Without the personal touch, customers entering Onker Singh’s Glasgow store could be blown away by a range of wines numbering in the hundreds, with bottles from popular wine regions like Australia, Italy and France sitting alongside slightly lesser known vineyards from Lebanon to Argentina.

There’s no doubt Onker’s expansive selection, which also includes hundreds of beers from across the globe and dozens of small batch craft spirits, helped the retailer to secure the Licensed Retailer title at the 2017 Scottish Grocer Awards, but it’s the customer focus that makes Maxwells much more than a room full of booze.

According to Onker, conversations with customers are critical and can be just the thing to put independent retailers a nose ahead of the supermarkets, as well as being an essential part of selling more premium brands.

“You’ve really got to hand sell the product,” he said.

“The products that we have in the shop all need to be hand sold and you’ve got to be able to fit with what the customer is looking for, whether that be a pilsner, dunkel or whether it be a wheat beer. You’ve got to get the definition and pass it over to the customer with confidence.”

The level of training required to get to grips with a mammoth beer and wine range is not inconsiderable, and Onker doesn’t expect every retailer to become a sommelier overnight, but the retailer does reckon there are simple steps that can be taken to improve performance in off-sales.

“There is a need to be self taught,” he said. “There are a lot of shopkeepers that don’t drink so they can’t taste and explain it. However, they can explain the layman terms for different beers and wines, explaining what a lager is, what an IPA is, the definition of a wheat beer. There are so many ways of identifying different styles of beer.”

Customers have their habits for the holidays. Once they’ve got their shopping no one wants to go out.

With Santa Claus set to be loading his sleigh soon, now may be the best time to do a bit of research into wines, spirits and craft beers, particularly as Onker reckons there’s an opportunity to sell in bulk if the offer is right.

“People buy cases for Christmas day, they buy wines for the whole festive season,” he said.

“Customers have their habits for the holidays. Once they’ve got all their shopping for that period of two to three days when friends and family come over, no one really wants to go out to the shops.

“But when you’ve got family coming over one bottle of wine won’t do.”

Families are certainly well catered to at Maxwells where Onker offers Christmas hampers packed with cheese, wine, beers and even premium spirits, with some regular customers spending up to £100 on these bespoke gifts.

Onker will also host a festive gin tasting in Clarkston hall on 8 December, with brand ambassadors from small batch gins pitching up to share their knowledge with customers.

Hosting events is just one way in which Onker has elevated his store above traditional off-sales focused stores, with his sister site in Clarkston now also boasting an on-trade licence allowing him to drum up some additional footfall from a welcome high-margin addition to his offer.

For the future, Onker said he has considered applying for an on-trade licence for his Pollockshields store although, with his own children getting older the retailer reckons family may have to come first.

At present, Onker suggested a quick sale of his Pollockshields shop could be on the horizon, but the retailer has no intentions of stepping away from the drinks business entirely. In fact, Onker said he would love to go on sharing his off-sales knowledge not just with customers, but retailers too.

“I’d love to go around the shops and speak to people on an independent basis and help people increase their revenues,” he said.