Shopping under the influence

Chardonnay in the shoe department: Retailers are increasingly serving alcohol to woo shoppers, vying to create an experience they can’t get online
Lora Laukitis and Kathy Miller carry drinks as they shop at Nordstrom in New York City on Jan. 24. The Nordstrom flagship store contains seven bars and restaurants. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Walk past the $2,500 studded Saint Laurent boots and $995 Versace sneakers at Nordstrom’s newly minted flagship store, and you’ll end up at its most buzzed-about attraction: the full bar.

Shoe Bar, as it’s aptly called, specializes in $17 cocktails with names like Billionaire and Husband Daycare. It sells wine by the glass, half a dozen craft beers, and plates of chicken wings and meatballs. And by 4 p.m. most days, it’s packed.

“What better experience is there? It is the most fabulous thing,” said Kathy Miller, 70, of Carefree, Ariz., who recently stopped in for a couple of whiskey sours — and Aquatalia boots. Her friend, Lora Laukitis, 67, was shopping for sneakers. But first: a double shot of tequila.

“To attract shoppers these days, you have to do something different and fun,” Miller said. “And, of course, the more you drink, the more you spend.”

Across the country, shopping centers, malls and major chains like Nordstrom, Crate & Barrel, Whole Foods and Giant are increasingly allowing — even encouraging — customers to imbibe while they browse. It’s the latest attempt by stores to offer shoppers an experience they can’t get online, like in-store climbing walls and designer trunk shows but with a much bigger reach: Retailers say customers tend to stay longer and spend more freely when they’re drinking.

“I don’t know why it took us so long to put drinking and shoes together, but it’s a great combination,” chief executive Erik Nordstrom said at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference last month. “Customers at the bar, drinking — it helps sell things."

But public health experts find the trend troubling, even out of touch, given the rise of “sober curious” culture and hashtag-friendly challenges such as Dry January. In fact, alcohol consumption is on the decline worldwide, down 1.6 percent in 2018, according to the International Wines and Spirits Record.

Bottles are lined up next to shoes in Nordstrom's New York store.
Nick Schneider has a drink at Nordstrom in New York.
Shoppers set down their drinks at Nordstrom. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)
TOP: Bottles are lined up next to shoes in Nordstrom's New York store. BOTTOM LEFT: Nick Schneider has a drink at Nordstrom in New York. BOTTOM RIGHT: Shoppers set down their drinks at Nordstrom. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)

“The alcoholic beverage industry has worked hard to create new and novel occasions to drink: ‘It’s Tuesday night, you’re with your girlfriends, so you should be drinking,'" said Judy Grisel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “Now the message is that we need to be drinking even when we’re buying food for dinner."

Nearly a century after prohibition ended, alcohol permeates every part of American society. There are boozy brunches and ever-accessible happy hours. Beer and wine are served on planes and boats, at nail salons, barbershops and movie theaters, even the gym. But being able to order a cocktail while running a routine errand like picking up milk or a pair of jeans, Grisel and others say, takes the trend to a new extreme.

“So many people are already struggling with alcohol — 1 in 8 adults in the U.S. is an alcoholic, drinking-related deaths have doubled since 2000 — and this makes it even easier to drink,” said Grisel, author of “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction.” “You have to wonder: What’s the intention here? And if it’s just to sell more, that seems like questionable ethics."

But fans say drinking at the store offers a small diversion from otherwise quotidian tasks and is no different from ordering a lunchtime beer or after-work margarita.

Just ask Miller, the Nordstrom shopper who once owned a women’s clothing boutique in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she kept a stocked bar. The wine, beer and tequila were mostly served to antsy husbands. “It gave them something to do,” she said. “And after a couple of drinks, they didn’t mind that their wives were spending so much."

Nicola Ward tries on shoes at Nordstrom.
A bright red shoe decorates a bar at Nordstrom.
Lora Laukitis peruses the menu at Nordstrom. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)
TOP: Nicola Ward tries on shoes at Nordstrom. BOTTOM LEFT: A bright red shoe decorates a bar at Nordstrom. BOTTOM RIGHT: Lora Laukitis peruses the menu at Nordstrom. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)

‘Gimmick’ or ‘genius’

There are draft beers at Lululemon and mezcal-infused cocktails at a Chicago-area Crate & Barrel. Furniture chain RH (formerly Restoration Hardware) allows shoppers to sip wine as they browse and, if they happen to be at the Napa Valley store, upgrade to the $100 tasting in a two-story wine vault.

In a way, retail experts say, the emergence of alcohol at national chains is a democratization of what has long been a staple of luxury shopping: a glass of bubbly or Scotch while trying on dresses or shirts at designer showrooms. Making cocktails available to the masses, they say, is an easy way for bricks-and-mortar retailers to offer an “experience” that sets them apart from their online competitors. It is also lucrative: Gross profit margins for alcoholic drinks — 70 to 80 percent — are about double those for apparel and groceries, according to consulting firm AlixPartners.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s genius,” said Kate Carey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University, whose research focuses on alcohol abuse. “Draw people in [with] the novel pairing of drinking alcohol while shopping and then lower their inhibitions as you are presenting them with things to buy.”

Shopping while inebriated, retailers say, has taken on new life in an era of e-commerce, where making an impulse purchase is as easy as tapping a button on your phone. Websites like eBay and Gilt, and shopping channel QVC, have all reported a spike in nighttime purchases that executives say may be alcohol-aided.

But there are also signs of a broader backlash against alcohol driven by wellness-seeking Americans. Hashtags like #DryJanuary and #SoberSeptember have become popular markers of abstinence, while a growing sober curious movement is encouraging adults to become more deliberate about when, and why, they drink. U.S. beer sales have declined for five straight years, while wine sales recently fell for the first time in 25 years. (Demand for low- and no-alcohol beer, meanwhile, rose nearly 7 percent last year, according to IWSR.) Restaurants and bars are increasingly offering nonalcoholic alternatives to popular cocktails, in hopes of appealing to those who’d rather abstain.

So while selling shoppers a drink or two might help increase sales in the short term, analysts say it might not be the best long-term strategy for ailing retailers, which last year announced a record 9,300 store closures.

“It’s a gimmick,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “Handing someone a cocktail gets them to spend more, but it’s not a sustainable way to sell clothes.”

Margaritas in plastic cups

Diana Miller orders beer at Whole Foods Market, champagne at Neiman Marcus, and prosecco with Grand Marnier at Nordstrom. These indulgences, the Dallas resident says, are among her “absolute favorite things to do.”

“It’s, like, ‘Hey, it’s 3 o’clock. I’m going to grab a drink at Whole Foods and do my grocery shopping,’ ” said Miller, 38, and no relation to Kathy Miller. “I stay longer because I want to savor the drink — and of course I buy more things than I need to."

Once, after a few glasses of sauvignon blanc, she picked up a crown roast of lamb that ended up in the freezer for six months. Another time, she says, she left the Dior counter at Neiman Marcus with “an entire skin-care line for a skin problem I don’t have.” But on the whole, Miller says, the promise of a drink or two is enough to pull her away from her computer and into the store. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.)

At the Shops at La Cantera, an open-air mall in San Antonio, guests can sip alcohol while they peruse the offerings at 90 stores including Sephora, Ann Taylor and Sunglass Hut. The shopping center has a dozen full-service restaurants, as well as a new kiosk between the Z Gallerie and Zara stores that serves wine, beer and frozen margaritas in plastic cups.

Brian Schroeder, the property’s senior general manager, said sales have “continued to grow positively for our retailers” since the service was added about a year ago. Shopping centers in Virginia, Colorado and Arizona have similar offerings.

“We’re always looking for ways to enhance the guest experience,” Schroeder said, noting that the mall also recently began welcoming dogs. “This is one way to get people to stay longer.”

But selling alcohol can be tricky, forcing retailers into a competitive new line of business that requires permits, licenses and, in some places, additional security guards. Retail analysts say that the arrangement raises logistical challenges aside from the obvious risks of red wine dribbling onto an evening gown or designer shoes: Issues range from checking identification cards to cutting off a shopper who may have had too much to drink.

The Manhattan Nordstrom, which opened in October, has a bar or restaurant on each of its seven floors and also allows customers to place orders with sales staff. Another 13 locations have a storewide liquor license. (And while executives say the availability of alcohol generally translates to higher sales, a spokeswoman for Nordstrom declined to comment on whether there’s been a corresponding uptick in returns.)

Food and drink sales make up nearly 1 in 4 transactions at Nordstrom stores, making it an important and growing part of the Seattle-based retailer’s business, according to David Kim, director of food and beverage. Staffers, he said, are trained “in safe and responsible alcohol service,” which means they check for valid IDs and won’t sell drinks to anyone who seems intoxicated. And though there are some restrictions on exactly where customers can drink — alcoholic beverages are prohibited on the ground floor in New York, for example — Kim said the company is generally unfazed when it comes to a spill or broken glass.

“We don’t focus on guarding against mishaps,” he said. “We understand that accidents can happen, but we trust our customers in our stores."

Kayla Bukovac and Shreya Kanal find seats at a bar at Nordstrom.
A Nordstrom bartender prepares drinks.
Customers set down drinks while they shop for shoes. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)
TOP: Kayla Bukovac and Shreya Kanal find seats at a bar at Nordstrom. BOTTOM LEFT: A Nordstrom bartender prepares drinks. BOTTOM RIGHT: Customers set down drinks while they shop for shoes. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)

From bar stool to the store

Danielle Vogel knew she wanted to include a bar at the front of her store when she opened Glen’s Garden Market in Northwest Washington in 2013. She just didn’t expect that it would become the store’s main attraction.

“We quickly realized we had to start getting people off of the bar stool and into the grocery store,” she said. She began handing bar patrons a token good for a 10 percent discount on anything in the store — except more booze.

So far, she says, the strategy has worked. The neighborhood grocery store has a steady stream of regulars who stop in to drink, shop or do both. Increasingly, she said, customers are carrying their wine or beer with them while they browse the shelves. (Next on her wish list: pint-glass holders for the store’s shopping baskets.)

“Having a drink takes the chore out of grocery shopping,” she said. And it makes business sense: “After a craft beer or two, a $10 jar of jam seems like a great idea.”

Mikki Kendall says she absolutely hates grocery shopping. But sipping wine while she fills her cart at Mariano’s, a Chicago-area supermarket chain, makes it tolerable.

“Having a drink while you shop is the adult version eating samples at the grocery store,” the 43-year-old writer said. “You are walking around, enjoying something yummy.”

That’s not to say there isn’t an occasional downside. “A glass or two of wine does lead me to the fancy food aisle,” Kendall said. “I sometimes come home with more than my share of fig preserves and prosciutto."

Mariano’s, which is owned by Kroger and has bars at 21 of its 44 stores, is known for its $3 draft beers and $5 mimosas. Shopping carts are outfitted with cupholders to accommodate multitasking.

“The bar is full by 4 o’clock,” said spokeswoman Amanda Puck. “People come in to drink, to hang out and, oh, buy groceries on their way out.”

The company has a “glass retrieval system” for the wine and beer empties that materialize along store shelves and at checkout lines, she said. People otherwise, “tend to be responsible."

Nick Coffeen was introduced to boozy shopping at a Mariano’s opening party a few years ago, when he and a few friends strolled through the aisles with vodka-La Croix cocktails. It wasn’t long before they began thinking of the supermarket as a place to hang out, drink and buy an ill-advised cookie cake — or three.

“It’s really amplified the whole shopping experience,” said Coffeen, 27, who works for a software start-up. “Waiting in line is much more enjoyable when you’ve had a couple of rosés or White Claws.”

A drink sits on a shoe display at Nordstrom. (Amy Lombard for The Washington Post)

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