Take All the Margins you Deserve – The Only Way to Run a Successful Wholesale Wine Business

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A client began our consulting session with the news that he’d made his first sale. I had not spoken to him in several months, having helped mainly with label approvals and pre-import advice, so I was glad to know he had made progress and looked forward to helping him further with his new questions.

This client’s company is licensed as both a US importer and a California distributor. He and his partner had decided to start small, as many importers do, and concentrate on their home state, establishing a foundation that could be used to demonstrate to distributors in other states that their portfolio had traction. So far so good.

The wine had just arrived in the U.S. and the sale was five cases to a discerning buyer at a high profile Los Angeles store. Therefore, most importantly for today’s subject, he had made the sale as a California distributor. Secondly, it was to a discerning buyer at a high profile store. Thirdly, the sale was five cases. All of this would indicate the wine was very good and the pricing was excellent.

It sounded like a promising start for a new importer’s unknown brands and as a result of this news, I asked about his pricing structure and what discounts he was giving for volume. He revealed that he had not considered discounts, nor had the retailer asked for a one.  This really surprised me. As a rule of thumb, in California there is a “front line” price for one case and then varying reductions are given at, e.g., three and five cases or five and ten. Further discounts are usually available with even greater volume. Variations on this would generally be the norm in all states. I would have expected the retailer to at least ask about discounts unless the wine price had been expressly indicated as “net” (no discount).

Through further examination of his pricing I discovered that they were only taking one margin. In other words, they had marked up the wine only at the importer level, instead of taking it further to the wholesaler pricing needed to sell to retailers. Their rationale was that they were both importer and wholesaler and okay with the profit at that price. After all, they had made a good sale, hadn’t they? No, this was catastrophic! I had to break the news to him that no wonder the buyer was so happy with the pricing, didn’t question it and bought five cases. The only good news in all of this was actually that the wine must be good quality for the buyer to have made the purchase at all. After all, he wasn’t going to buy bad wine at any price. Unfortunately, with that pricing strategy they would not have a long-term profitability model, or would eke out very limited distribution in their immediate area, and only if they were delivering the wines themselves and continue to make all the sales. They would never be able to:

  • sell to a distributor in California, should they choose down the road; after all it’s a big state and they can’t cover it all on their own
  • hire or pay for salespeople or brokers to provide more sales
  • sell to a distributor in any other state; with the transparency of the internet, any distributor could see that the retail price for the wines made by the importer in California would be much lower than they would have to charge to sustain the business model in their respective states
  • build their California distributor infrastructure, because there was no room in this limited margin

An importer margin is generally 30-35% and designed to cover marketing, travel to the various markets, samples, incentives, warehousing, licenses, brand registrations, out-of-state brokers (if necessary) and other expenses accruing to an importer selling to and supporting distribution in a few states or nationally.

A wholesaler/distributor margin, when licensed to sell within your home state, is generally 45-50% and must fund warehousing and delivery, state excise taxes, local taxes (if applicable), salespeople or independent brokers, state licenses, lots of samples, discounts on pricing, promotion and in-state travel.

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It is evident that the new importers who take this one margin approach are doing so in a well-intentioned effort to be competitive and with the assumption that they will still have a profitable business without gouging and being greedy. This is commendable but misguided. As an importer, the incentive to distribute within your own state is that sales can often be made faster and more directly to a retail account than to a distributor outside the state. For a new importer that has spent months working through licensing, compliance and logistics, immediate gratification feels very good. But by taking on the responsibility and jeopardy of two different levels of the business, those two margins will allow you to cover all the expenses of two businesses, both built-in and unforeseen. With one margin expected to do double duty there’s no way this will be profitable.  As an importer and distributor:

You are entitled to both margins. You need both margins.

But further, and perhaps most importantly of all for the future of the portfolio, you are preserving a retail price that enables any distributor to buy from you at FOB and sell at Wholesale to their customer, maintaining a retail price within their state that comes close to the retail figure in your state. With only one margin, a retail store in California could be charging $9.99 for a wine that will sell for $15.99 elsewhere. This is untenable and no distributor will carry wines with that disparity.

It’s not the first time that someone has come to me and told me that they were starting out their wholesale business on one margin, but I hope it will be the last. Not all new importers will succeed, mostly through insufficient groundwork or lack of sustained effort. I would hate to see anyone, my client or not, to fail on the basis of something so rudimentary and fixable.

Pricing Your Imported Wine in an Era of Disruption

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profit margin error

Using long-range planning to price your wines is paramount to your business model, no matter what the political climate, and yet I have found that new importers often neglect this aspect. Most are very aware of getting the importer markup and margins right in the beginning, of course, but neglect to think long-term. It’s understandable. Those early days of logistics, compliance and business setup can be overwhelming.

Currently, the US Dollar has been getting weaker in the past few months, notably against the AUD and the Euro, after several years of favorable rates for imports into the U.S. This is what prompts me to address the subject of margins. In the U.S. there is a new administration and a president who says he wants a weak dollar to help US exports. However, a weak USD is exactly the opposite of what an importer wants. In addition to the state of affairs in the U.S., globally, Australia has a strong economy and instability within certain European Union member countries has created some fluctuation in the Euro. A looming Brexit has also taken its toll.

During the recession, imports of many wines slowed, especially those in the mid to upper tier, as disposable income became less available and importing of all wines became more expensive and therefore less viable. A significant factor was the very weak USD. During that time, the AUD was on a par with the USD, i.e. $1 AUD to $1 USD, and the Euro was in the 1.4-1.6 range. Are we heading into that realm again? I have no idea, but we appear to be on an upward trajectory and this could spell trouble for your imports if you haven’t planned accordingly. By that I mean built a cushion into your FX rate so that if you’re currently buying wines at 4 Euros a bottle, e.g., and the FX rate is 1.2, convert the wine to USD using a slightly higher ratio, such as 1.3 or 1.35 so that if rates go into that territory you’ll still have a reasonable markup and profit margin. In other words:

Purchase at 4 Euros = $4.80 at 1.2

  • This FX rate prices the wine on the shelf at approximately $16.99*

Purchase at 4 Euros = $5.20 at 1.3

  • This FX rate prices the wine on the shelf at approximately $18.99*

You have to decide whether your particular wine can sustain this type of increase in retail on the shelf and what the “sweet spot” price should be. Does it take it from a different category, for instance from < $10 to mid-tier pricing? Is it in line for that style, region, and quality and against your competition? Regardless of the FX rates and your normal markup, this is always a juggling act in the marketplace. The bottom line is that while it is optimal to offer wines that “over-deliver”, especially against such a crowded field, you can’t afford not to make a profit based on an unsustainable margin.

It is also important to note, that while you can and often should offer volume discounts and incentive programming to your distributor, once you set your wines at a standard lower price point it is much harder to increase them later, except as a natural cost-of-living adjustment or in instances where it is warranted and with notice. If you are able to build in a cushion, use that for early marketing. Later, if the foreign currency goes up you’ll still make a profit and if it stays the same or goes down, the money can again be used for promotion.

Can your supplier support a lower price to you in the event of an increasingly squeezed margin? This might be built into your initial contract or agreement with them. Before I transitioned into full-time consulting, teaching and writing and away from importing my own wines, we were deep into the worst of the recession and one of my wineries gave me a discount on each invoice of an additional 5% to offset the exchange rate as long as it maintained above a certain level. This was always noted on the purchase order.

The point is that nothing can eat away at margins and erode profits for your imported wine and spell disaster for your business than a strengthening foreign currency or a weakening U.S. dollar if you don’t factor this in from the beginning and keep your eye on the ball.

 

*retail around the country will differ for a variety of reasons, none of which are in your control, but this is used as an illustration of realistic examples of differences in FX rate.

Tied-House Trouble

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Tied-House rules are the foundation of the U.S. wine industry regulations, at both federal and state level. They permeate every activity that involves the commercial making, importing, distribution, sale and consumption of wine. As antiquated as they are, the federal and state licensing bodies still oversee their adherence as rigidly as a feudal lord once managed his fiefdom.

Despite that, Tied-House violations that relate to “providing something of benefit”, from a wholesaler to a retailer, seem to occur frequently, judging by the number of issues I observe or have brought to my attention by questioning clients. It’s not surprising, really. With the proliferation of social media in general, and wineries and importers who are using social media to promote their wines, in particular, this very public arena is fraught with risk. Additionally, the law isn’t all that clear until you run afoul of it. And then it’s often too late.

Wine Tasting sign

Although this is a confusing subject for most, I thought the media attention given last year to a rash of offenses relating to a wine tasting event in Sacramento, CA, sufficiently addressed it. News outlets reported on it, as did several blogs. But I’m still seeing clear Tied-House violations in tweets, Facebook posts and, at least in theory, in the questions from clients. So, perhaps another explanation won’t go amiss.

Before we get into that, let’s run through a brief refresher of the Tied-House definition and the restrictions that apply to the U.S. wine industry. I think it will help relate it to ways in which it can be breached.

Tied-House originally referred historically to England’s public houses – pubs, as they’re more commonly known – and their tied relationships with breweries, requiring them to buy a significant percentage of their beer from a particular brewery. This could be because the brewery owned the pub, rented the business to the pub or had invested in some way that gave them an advantage in this relationship – the crux of this problem. In some cases, this resulted in a disproportionate number of pubs in an area restricting their beer options to the consumer and became an opportunity to control pricing. In other words, the breweries with the greatest financial clout could control what the customer drank and at what price.

In the U.S. the familiar practice in England was transferred to the new world as they established saloons, and continued until Prohibition (1920-1933). In Europe, tied-house relationships weren’t a good idea, but tradition and convention served to keep the peace. In the new world, it was a really bad idea. It was virtually an unregulated free-for-all, with rampant violence and corruption.  Upon Prohibition’s repeal, when alcohol consumption was legal again, the U.S. government decided to learn from past mistakes and enact laws that prohibited “tied houses” and prevent the vertical integration of wholesale and retail business.

The result of all this is that wholesale entities – wineries, distributors, importers – cannot own retail entities – restaurants, bars or retail alcohol shops. There are loopholes in California these days, particularly to allow for online sales, but essentially this is the law.

Tied-House laws exist in almost every state in some form or another. In the case of California, where I reside and the recent cases occurred, the California Alcoholic Beverage Control, the regulating and licensing body, told me it has limited resources and actually don’t actively seek out violators. They don’t have to; according to the CA ABC, a large distributor or two is doing the job for them by calling their attention to infractions from their competitors. Whatever the case, it is certainly considered a serious offence by the CA ABC and dealt with accordingly through either fines, probation, suspension or revocation of license.

Instead of becoming mired in quotes from statutes and codes, which are available at state alcohol regulation websites, I’d rather distill the essentials into something a lot simpler. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • The phrase “nothing of value” can be given to a retailer from a wholesaler is the bedrock of Tied-House rules.
  • This means no mention of a retailer by a wholesaler in a tweet of a retail event promoted by the event itself or another party. An example, “come and try our wines at XXX wine bar on May 16th”.
  • No photo of an event on Facebook, or on a blog or a website, either before or after the event, if the name of the place is mentioned or any signage is visible. Even if nothing is said, if the retail establishment can be identified in your photo it is a violation.
  • No mention of any retail account in a tweet (e.g.) to indicate that you’ve sold to the account, plan on selling to them, or that the wines can be found at this account now or in the future. For example, you cannot say, “We’re proud to have our wines in XXX store” or “If you’ve been having trouble finding our wines, they will soon be available at XXX store”.
  • No mention of XXX store loving the wine. For example, “Joe, at XXX store, said this is the best NZ Sauvignon Blanc he’s tasted all year” or “Cheryl, at XXX wine bar, loves the new vintage of our Syrah”.
  • No mention of a tasting you’ve done, or a photo of a tasting, if it’s at a retail location. The retailer may not even be carrying your wine, but if the event is a retail location, which is now tweeted or posted to potential followers, it is considered providing something of value to the retailer, thereby establishing a de facto favorable relationship between wholesaler and retailer.
  • No retweet by the wholesaler of a tweet by another party to promote an event at which the wholesaler’s wines will be poured or sold.

To round this out, many states do allow something “of value” to be given to the retailer in the form of product displays, samples and signage, but TTB (Alcohol Tobacco Tax Bureau) defines these as items that are specifically for the promotion of alcohol that is bought by the store. It is not intended as an inducement to favor placement for the wholesaler and cannot be greater than $300 in value.

Today, promotion of wine is ubiquitous on the internet and every wholesaler must be familiar with Tied-House regulations to understand how they can do so legally. If you are engaged in social media for your winery, wholesale distribution or importing business, before you post that photo, tweet that tweet or comment on your website, consider whether you are in fact promoting a retailer in the process, even seemingly innocuously and tangentially.

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral – Your U.S. Based Wine Business

A friend of mine was recently struggling with the concept of “branding” herself as a writer, which caused me to reflect on what it can mean in the wine industry, in an entirely different way than we normally explore the subject, even in an entirely different way than I have explored it before in my wine writing. Of course we’re all familiar with branding when it comes to actual wine brands like Yellow Tail, Château Lafite, Robert Mondavi, Jacob’s Creek and so on. Whether it is value, consistent quality, elite status, rare, pricey, pedigree or fun, each name is attached to an identifiable and carefully cultivated image.

And we’re familiar with the idea of branding from the start of a wine venture, so that a unique concept for a new wine label offers a consistent image poised to be identified with a vision. The vision carries the hope of branding into the future.

Winemakers trade show san diego Mar 13 (13)

But when thinking about branding your fledgling enterprise or yourself, what should you explore to enable you to stand out from the crowd, and do it in a way that plays to your strengths, rather than struggle against your weaknesses?

I most often first encounter a client when they are very new to the wine business and often before they have any notion of how to begin. They may have various ideas of what they want to do – and they’re usually all doable within the framework of a wine business. But even when they conform to U.S. wine regulations, not all of them will work for that individual’s personality and temperament.

I had one client who, without any prior experience in the wine business, told me he and his wife decided to open a retail store, because they wanted to introduce many exceptional, but previously unknown wines from a particular country to the American consumer. It would include a wine bar so customers could taste through the featured wines and they would be located in a trendy neighborhood of their home city. They were so enthusiastic about wanting to bring these new wines in that they hadn’t stopped to consider many aspects of the business they were describing.

First and foremost, who was actually going to bring in the new wines? If they were the importers, they couldn’t be the retailers. If they were determined to bring this retail store to fruition, who would they find to bring in small quantities of unfamiliar, untested wines just so that they could sell them in their one fine wine store? It would be a logistical nightmare, unless there was a larger plan to distribute elsewhere, which was getting away from the retail store idea…

Secondly, what about their personalities? How did that figure into it? As we talked, I learned that both of these individuals were accustomed to high power jobs that took them all over the world in sales and marketing positions. They were burned out on their respective careers and had sufficient seed capital to start a new business, but had not thought further than their first bright idea. When I dug deeper, explaining that the reality of owning a retail store meant not only staying in one place, but actually being anchored to the store as the source of all their sales, marketing, customer service and relationships, they realized that this would drive them crazy; they needed to be playing in a much larger arena. As it turned out, they decided to become importers and distributors so that they could travel in a manageable way at their discretion, and each be responsible for discrete roles. They could still bring in the wines they loved and introduce their discoveries to a broader market, utilizing the sales and marketing skills they had honed in their previous careers. It was a far cry from their original idea, but suited their styles far better. As a result, they could “brand” themselves, in a sense, as the go-to for this particular region, enjoying applying the knowledge and experience in a way that was fun, and potentially profitable.

Many times, clients will have clear ideas of what they want to accomplish and it is on that basis that we approach the consulting. Sometimes though, clients will come to the initial call telling me about all the myriad things they want to take on in the wine business, without recognizing what each of these encompass and entails. At times like this I ask them to write out a hybrid mission statement/business plan. It doesn’t have to be a professional document, but it should be something that allows their thoughts to coalesce and reveal what they are looking for from the wine business and what matters to them most – such as level of income, domestic or international travel, types of relationships, work schedules, diversification of tasks, wine education, stability – and how they want to get there. And what sort of budget they had to make it all work. Small budgets don’t necessarily mean sticking to small dreams, but they should be predicated on realistic and more quickly realized goals. Those with large budgets still need to take into consideration how they see their future unfolding in the wine world, a first glimpse perhaps at branding themselves and their business.

So when the new wine entrepreneur carefully considers how they want to shape their wine career, if they look at traditional branding concepts such as identity, consistency, differentiation, quality, uniqueness and a story within the framework of their personality and preferred style, the potential for a successful career begins on more solid footing.

When a Brand Changes Importers – Caveat Emptor

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Taking on a brand that is already established seems, at first blush, like a beautiful thing, especially when they have sought you out, or you have been recommended to them. It definitely has its advantages in readymade distribution, but there are also critical issues you will face which must not be obscured by your initial rosy glow.

We’ll dispense with the matter of whether the wines have traction, are priced fairly and a myriad of other factors. We’ll assume you have covered these questions before taking on the brand. You have, haven’t you?

There are three distinct logistic/compliance areas that should be tackled without delay at the outset and throughout the transition. Unfortunately, when the brand is not voluntarily given up – whether it is for legitimate reasons or not – there is bound to be an uncomfortable relationship between winery and ‘old’ importer, which will spill over to you as the ‘new’ importer and potential adversary. At the very least, it is an awkward time as the previous importer wonders what has been said. Was their termination because they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars to the brand owner? Or were they just struggling to find distribution, but truly thought they were doing a good job and blindsided by the supplier’s decision? None of the reasons, real or imagined, are going to be palatable to the prior U.S. representative. They will see you as the one who is going to reap the rewards of their foundation. However, you will need information from this person, and you will need their cooperation. Occasionally they will offer it willingly. Sometimes, they feel that bringing you up to speed only adds insult to injury, or at best is viewed as wasted time when they could be turning their attention to finding a replacement for this lost revenue. Rarely, they will actually attempt to sabotage you. I have experienced all of these scenarios.

Old importer protecting his wines from new importer

Old importer protecting his wines from new importer

The first issue is whether you have taken on a brand that has product in the States at the present time. Naturally, to have cleared customs, it is already labeled with the old importer’s details as part of the mandatory label information. There is no reason why you cannot sell and distribute this product. If the importer owes the brand owner money, it must be transferred to you immediately, to avoid a fire sale on the part of the previous importer who now has nothing to lose (in his mind).  If it has been paid for, you do not have any obligation to purchase the wine, especially if there are old vintages or wines you feel have limited momentum, but in concert with the winery it could be concluded that purchasing is safer to avoid said fire sale and bastardizing the brand.

In the event of purchase or transfer, keep in mind that some states require that the previous importer give you permission to sell wine labeled with the old importer name, by having to register the brand under your license in their state. This requires a letter from the previous importer relinquishing all rights to the brand and authorizing you to distribute wine that is labeled for their use. This is not a Federal (TTB) issue when the wines are already in the U.S. It is a state by state issue. Some states will not require anything from you. Some franchise states will require a release from the distributor. Others will allow you to distribute this wine in their state with a simple letter from the previous importer.

The second issue relates to the wines that may have been labeled in the source country ahead of its required use in the U.S., to save money by bottling and labeling a certain quantity at the same time. Or it may have been done at the request, or insistence, of the previous importer, who wanted to secure a specific number of cases for their future use, or who led the winery to believe in inflated expectations for sales. In this case, hundred of cases – thousands of bottles – may already be labeled with the incorrect importer details, all boxed up and warehoused somewhere in the home country. Relabeling could well be within the brand owner’s budget and they would prefer to do so, but it is also very likely that the labor and material costs will incur a hardship for them. In the latter event, there is a TTB provision for a label “use up” and temporary approval of labels for importation, under the old importer’s name. This is accomplished by applying for a COLA (Certificate of Label Approval) online in the usual manner. However, the label jpeg graphic you supply will be the old label and in the section for “other attachments” you will upload a hardship letter. This information is not readily available on TTB’s site, because it is something that they do not encourage, but they will give careful consideration to each request. To quote an ATF (the old TTB) circular verbatim:

“ATF understands that there are circumstances when a company may request to “use-up” labels that do not strictly comply with the labeling requirements of the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act. Reasons may include the sale of a brand to another company or a change of address of the certificate holder. While ATF does not encourage the use of these labels, we realize that situations arise when temporary approval should be considered. We make our decision about use-up requests of temporary approvals on a case-by-case basis. We restrict approval to situations when consumers are not likely to be misled as to the identity and quality of the contents of the bottle.”  

TTB requires that you supply them with the length of time you require for the “use-up”, the reason, dollar impact and other pertinent information such as the steps you will take to ensure this does not happen again. This is all in the form of a personal letter and in your own words. Again, to quote ATF:

“After we review all the circumstances as you have presented them, we will make a determination as to whether or not we will grant permission to “use-up” existing label stock and for how long, Again, our main concerns are that the consumers are not likely to be misled as to the identity of the product, and that we can determine the company responsible for the product.”

The other alternative offered by TTB, which I mention only to round out the topic, is to cut out the importer’s details from each back label and carefully insert the new importer’s details in exactly the same place, all the while looking like a seamless and attractive label. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this and aside from questionable aesthetics, I imagine the sheer time consumption would make other alternatives far more attractive.

The third issue relates to franchise states and whether selling to an existing distributor (who represented the prior importer and will already have a relationship bias, either positive or negative) is possible, or if you can entice them to release the brand from their portfolio. But first, you have to know where it is registered. This is made far easier if the previous importer will provide the paperwork during the transition period, to enable you to know exactly where you stand and who you need to contact. It eliminates the need to wonder if the brand is registered at all, and to whom. It is conceivable – and I know several instances of it happening – that the importer distributed the brand in a franchise state without ever having registered it, which is illegal but happens. Or it could be that they registered it without ever actually supplying a single case.

In my own example, I was not made aware of the prior importer’s activity in Tennessee and found, through considerable effort, phone calls and other hugely time-consuming work, that this importer had not registered the brand in Tennessee and had not, in fact, distributed there. However, the prior importer before that (now two importers back) did register the brand to four different distributors in four different territories. The fact that this was five years ago and not a single case had been sold since, made no difference to the process of having to obtain a release from all these distributors to satisfy the state.

As always, my mantra is be prepared and do your due diligence! These importing and distribution issues are not insurmountable, despite sounding quite confusing when you first encounter them. It’s a matter of carefully considering your options each time you begin a new phase of business, conducting some research, or consulting with someone with experience.