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Understaffed Wine Retail Shops Could Use Some Help

Ever thought about working in a bottle shop?

Janice Williams By December 22, 2021
person picking out a bottle of wine
Picking out the perfect bottle at a wine shop. Photo by magnetcreative/iStock.

Would you like to try wine from all around the world, for free, and help others discover those wines too? Could you use some extra cash? Can you lift heavy boxes and take inventory? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then maybe consider a job in wine retail. Many stores could sure use some help.

The pandemic has done a number on small businesses in the U.S., forcing restaurants, bars, and brick-and-mortar establishments to close their doors or significantly reduce staff. However, some wine retailers are experiencing the complete opposite. Now having pivoted from in-store-only sales to delivery and pickup models, some shops around the country actually need more employees — not less — especially during the holiday season.

“It has been a challenging hiring environment on both coasts for our company,” says Mike Fisch, the director of innovation at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. “We have roughly 40 full and part-time positions that we would like to fill this holiday season throughout our five stores.”

It’s common for businesses to pick up during this time of the year, with so many people stocking up on wine for holiday dinners, parties, and gifts. Retailers typically up the ante on the staff during the holiday season to help meet the demand. However, some retailers have been dealing with the rush long before December due to increased online sales and shipping requests.

Increased demand, short supply

According to Forbes, online wine sales were up more than 500% at the height of the pandemic in April 2020. Wineries selling bottles direct-to-consumer, retailers, and delivery services like Drizly bore the brunt of that increase, as people used apps and the internet to place orders. And some are still reveling in all the business online services have afforded them. 

“We have grown our sales at a rate that’s around 20% on the online retail side of the operation, and it’s been all-hands-on-deck trying to get everything done to accommodate that,” says Mike Boland, the operations manager at Hidden Bench Estate Winery who oversees the company’s retail store. 

Growth is always welcome, but the challenge for Boland is keeping up with limited staff. Early in the pandemic, Hidden Bench paused in-store shopping and advanced its online store and shipping program. However, the high volume of orders the retail shop received each day meant they needed more help.

“We’ve kind of been on our heels for the last two years,” Boland says, adding that the tasting room and shop are also back open for in-person shopping. “We went from about a little over $50,000 a year in online sales to $400,000 last year. And we’re going to be close to that again this year.”

Down in North Carolina, Seaboard Wine and Tasting Bar in Raleigh has experienced a similar situation. The influx of holiday shoppers has only amplified the need for extra staff. 

“Before the pandemic, you knew that from the week before Christmas until the end of the year, it was going to be super busy. But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Once Jan. 1 hits, it slows down. That’s the formula. But during the pandemic, it just never stopped. There was no end to the rush,” says Jenn King, manager of Seaboard Wines.

A fully-staffed Seaboard usually includes about eight employees, tops. During the holidays, King usually relies on extra part-time employees to help balance out the duties of the store. Since expanding their shipping program at the height of the pandemic and reopening the shop to accommodate in-store shopping and Seaboard’s tasting bar, it’s been a struggle to keep employees. 

At Gary’s, team members have worked “extremely hard, putting in extra hours and taking on multiple roles” to meet the demand, says Fisch. However, management has needed to place constant job ads. 

“Hiring and maintaining team members is challenging in the current labor market,” he adds. “There seems to be an increase in demand for labor, coupled with a shortage of supply.”

“Before the pandemic, you knew that from the week before Christmas until the end of the year, it was going to be super busy. But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Once Jan. 1 hits, it slows down. That’s the formula. But during the pandemic, it just never stopped. There was no end to the rush.”

Not just a gig

Working in wine retail can be a good way to earn extra cash, especially during the holidays when stores are looking for additional hands. Some retailers also want to offer a career springboard for employees. 

Along with offering a competitive package with IRA matching, medical and dental insurance, and other benefits, Gary’s offers a wine training reimbursement program. “We can be a training ground for those who are interested in a long career in the beverage industry,” says Fisch.

The amount of wine an employee is likely to taste is also a benefit, plus it intersects with other industries.

“The wine industry actually touches on to everything. It touches on to agriculture, tourism. It touches hospitality. It touches retail. It touches health and science. It touches on all of these different industries,” says TJ Douglas, co-owner of The Urban Grape wine shop in Boston, Massachusetts.

Contrary to what some retailers have experienced with low staff and high turnover, The Urban Grape has managed to pivot to an expanded online wine retail program and keep a full roster of people employed. Douglas credits competitive hourly pay rates that include commission, benefits, and the shop’s investment in employees.

“What’s important to know is that for the people that come and work with us, it’s more of a career — whether it’s a career change or a continuation of a career — as opposed to just a gig at a wine store,” says Douglas. “Everyone knows that their palate matters and that we’re invested in them. We also do subsidized wine education for them, or even in some of our management, we help with management courses. We really want to bring them up, our employees, as we come up as well.”

Sure, working in wine retail could make for a cool weekend job and all, but it can also serve as much more than that. It could be the beginning of an unexpected new career path. With wine.