Brian Rosen describes himself as a “lifelong booze guy”. The former CEO of Sam’s Wine and Spirits of Chicago, America’s largest independent liquor retailer, is the founder of BevStrat, a company that offers sales teams to alcohol brands.
As it turns out, he comes from a long line of booze guys; his family has worked in alcohol for so long, that his grandfather was the first person to get a liquor licence in Chicago when Prohibition ended.
Which raises the intriguing question of how Grandpa got his liquor licence so fast ― was he already trading in alcohol?
“I can’t confirm or deny that,” says Rosen. “I can only share with you that Al Capone was at my father’s bar mitzvah.”
"There are more than 50,000 alcohol brands with the legal right to sell inside the US, but only 500 with any market traction."
Rosen grew up in the liquor business — Sam’s Wine and Spirits belonged to his family. He says over the course of his career he’s seen “a lot of brands” and it’s made him determined to support little brands, “because they’re horribly disadvantaged".
As he says, there are more than 50,000 alcohol brands with the legal right to sell inside the US, but only 500 with any market traction. “We chose to advocate for that small brand, and that’s how BevStrat was born.”
It’s a sales service that’s a boon to small alcohol companies, including wineries. In exchange for a monthly retainer ― typically between $6,000-$8,000 ― BevStrat will add a new brand to its portfolio, and its salespeople will take it on their sales round. It means brands can have their own sales team on the ground, without the high overheads.
What are the key things brand owners need to know before they attempt to enter the US market?
Rosen says that BevStrat will work with brands at any stage in their life cycle, from start to maturity. But before giving him a call, Rosen says there are key things brand owners need to know before they attempt to enter the US market.
It takes money to make money.
“You can’t shoestring this thing,” says Rosen. “It’s so expensive to be in the booze business, by which I mean wine, beer and spirits.”
There’s no getting around it ― money matters. To make money in the US market, you have to start with a healthy budget, for expenses like marketing, branding and sales, as well as for samples.
It takes patience
Rosen points to the brand Tito’s vodka, born in Austin, Texas in the mid-1990s. “I was selling Tito’s in the 1990s at Sam’s in Chicago, and I could not give it away,” he says. “It used to be free with Absolut.”
Tito’s stayed unloved for more than a decade, until the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. “The unemployment rate was in the double digits, inflation was high, people were losing their jobs, and so people had to trade down,” he says. “Drinking never stopped, but they traded down.” The moment was perfect for a cheap vodka. “It took off at the time when a $14 vodka was needed.”
In other words, it might be a long time until a brand catches fire, whether vodka or wine.
Sales don’t happen without a sales team
It’s a Catch-22: you need a salesperson to make sales, but you have to sell a lot to be able to afford one.
“If you’re in New York, an entry-level sales person is about $75,000 a year,” and that’s before costs like MetroCards, drag bags, insurance and samples are factored in, says Rosen, explaining that brands need to budget around $105,000 a year for each dedicated salesperson; for the margins to work, that person must sell a guaranteed $300,000 worth of product.
Making that kind of money is difficult for one salesperson, because they can see a maximum of four to five brand accounts a day. “You have to get around, right? You’re walking, you’re on a train and you’re dragging a bag up and down stairs.”
A salesperson who is never derailed by weather or sickness can probably see around 80 accounts per month. Once salary, travel and insurance are considered, that means the cost of each visit can be $100 or more.
“We guarantee 125 account visits a month,” says Rosen, adding that the brand then has no responsibility for insurance, subway tickets and so on.
It sounds like a great offer ― but can one salesperson really be loyal to multiple brands at once? “There’s no inner bag competition,” says Rosen. “If you’re the gin in the bag, you’re the gin. We only carry six items at a time.”
The first sale is the easiest
Rosen says brand owners can get too fixated on landing the first sale, not realising it’s the easiest one. “You have to get to the position where the shopkeeper or bar owner wants your brand without a rep or the supplier being in front of them,” he says. “It’s one thing getting on the shelf, but then the consumer has got to buy it.”
Brand owners can’t rely on the sales team to do all the work. “They’ve got to create a pull strategy. Is it your Instagram? Is it an email program? Is it tastings and activations?” Brand owners who can drive consumers to buy the product will have the retailer or sommelier behind them, because a wine that’s in demand creates profit for everybody.
Remember, says Rosen, that every product has multiple audiences: it has to appeal to the importer, the distributor, the retailer or sommelier, and then the consumer, and all of them have to be happy with it.
Take it one market at a time
Rosen says that many people who approach BevStrat for help are “far from their place where they’re selling, which I never understand.” Instead of starting in one market and then jumping into another, Rosen says consolidate in one market first. Every state in the USA is different, and it costs time and money to enter each one. Make sure all the opportunities in one market are seized before moving elsewhere.
You have to visit the market
A brand owner who wants to drop a product in a market and leave the sales people to do all the work is dooming that brand to failure, Rosen says.
“I can’t stress enough, you need to be an engaged supplier,” he says, because every brand has ten competitors lined up behind it.
Brand owners need to be visibly present, from meeting with the sales team to meeting with people all along the chain.
Only approach the big distributors when you’re ready
“Our biggest moment of pride is when a brand graduates,” says Rosen. “We don’t want you forever.”
Building up to graduation can take time, because the top distributors won’t “pick you up until you have 100 to 150 points of distribution in the market, because they don’t want the risk.”
It’s very tempting to shortcut the process, especially if there is someone ― a business colleague, a family member ― who “knows someone” and can make an introduction or get a listing.
Don’t do it, says Rosen, because the big companies won’t put resources into selling unknown brands. Worse, they may mark the wine up beyond its true price to get the margins commensurate with the risk, “so something that should be $30 on the shelf will now be $44,” says Rosen.
A better strategy is to be present in 150 stores and develop a strong sales record, and only then approach a major distributor. At that point, they will be willing to sit down and discuss pricing and margins, because “you’ve done the work and your brand will have a much greater chance of success because you’re sitting on the shelf at the right price”.
What’s better than a 7-point list? Good advice
Rosen says it’s vital to chat with someone knowledgeable before attempting to enter the US. “People come to the US and they think it’s as simple as it is in Europe, where if you’re a consumer and you want my wine, I’ll sell you my wine. In the US there are three or four prior steps.”
He warns against making another major mistake that he sees all the time: sending over too much wine at once. “If you don’t sell it quickly enough, the wine’s going to turn. It can turn in some warehouse in Jersey, or it can turn on the shelf, in which case your customer has had a bad experience.”
Worse, the distributor will discount the wine just to get rid of it. “That’s going to ruin your price in the marketplace.”
What do successful brands have in common?
First and foremost, a new brand must solve a market need, Rosen says. “Is there an available audience? Do you have a home base where you can get at least 10 to 15 lighthouse accounts to buy in? Because once you get that, you’re in.”
A good story
He also says that wine has a key competitive advantage over other alcohols. “I’ll tell you why I like wine. When I go into a liquor store and drink Bombay Sapphire or Hendrix gin, I would go to the shopkeeper and ask, ‘Where’s the Hendrix gin?’” If it’s not there, then maybe the next store will have it.
With wine, consumers are more likely to go into a store and say, “I need a great Pinot for under $20 ― what do you have?”, making wine a category that’s much easier to sell with a good story. “It’s very easy to go to a shopkeeper and say, ‘Hey, here is a great Oregon Pinot Noir and this will sit wonderfully on your shelf between $15 and $20’,” and then explain what makes it so special.
Alcohol is a difficult, low-margin business, but Rosen says he stays because “there is plenty of opportunity for success ― but you have to be methodical about it.”
This interview can be heard in its entirety on the Business of Drinks podcast. This episode will air on 14 June 2023.