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Buying alcohol online is becoming our new normal, and these home delivery apps are cashing in

Drizly, a home-delivery liquor service, lets you order alcohol from your computer or phone. (Drizly)

When the pandemic hit in March, we filled our larders with beans, started sourdough cultures, hoarded toilet paper and stocked up on alcoholic beverages.

You know, the necessities of life.

About those beverages: Quarantine changed our buying habits overnight. We could no longer go to restaurants or bars, so we shifted those budgets to retail. We ordered online. Sites such as saw dramatic sales increases in the second half of March. Nationwide, major retail stores pivoted to curbside pickup and home delivery.

The other pandemic winners were home-delivery sites such as Drizly and Minibar Delivery, third-party services promising to slake your thirst within an hour of you placing an order over their apps. They’re the adult-beverage equivalents of Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash. And just as we’ve gotten used to carryout and delivery dinners, we’ve embraced the idea of the doorbell heralding the arrival of our next martini, six-pack of craft beer or bottle of wine.

These services launched several years ago as a way to keep the party going when you ran out of chardonnay. They’ve now expanded nationwide, boosted by demand during the pandemic. Minibar Delivery announced a 139 percent increase in sales from early March to early April over 31 markets nationwide. Drizly, the market leader, saw its sales shoot up 750 percent from March to May of this year, compared with last year’s sales, according to Liz Paquette, head of consumer insights for the Boston-based company. That initial rush faded only a bit — year-over-year sales are now up a still impressive 350 percent over 2019, Paquette told me.

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Drizly secured $50 million in capital investment in August, as its business expanded dramatically. Once centered in large cities, the service has more than doubled its number of retail partners since the start of the year, as stores also scrambled to reach customers through new channels. Drizly operates in all 31 states that allow home delivery of alcohol beverages, as well as Edmonton, Alberta.

Further expansion will require other states to change regulations and allow third-party delivery of alcohol, Paquette said. Meanwhile, Drizly will use that capital investment to expand its retail partnerships in existing markets as well as build up customer service on its app and website, she says.

“Right now, we’re primarily a convenience site, offering beer, wine and spirits in under 60 minutes,” Paquette said. “We are moving to becoming more of an educational site, with personal recommendations like you could get walking down the aisle at a retail store.”

For consumers, the cost of using third-party delivery apps varies by state. Some states require a flat fee or allow the delivery service to charge a percentage. Stores may require a minimum purchase — $50 where I live in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. These third-party delivery companies need to navigate the treacherous shoals of the alcohol distribution system, which differs from state to state.

Unlike most of the country, Maryland consumers can’t purchase alcohol at grocery stores. That may change soon.

The pandemic has forced wineries to look for new ways to reach consumers, including delivery apps. With winery visitation down and restaurant sales low to nonexistent, that usually means direct-shipping to consumers. But it can also mean increased retail sales through “the digital shelf” of retail delivery apps, said Kristen Reitzell, vice president of public relations for Jackson Family Wines in California. Jackson Family has seen strong sales of its popular La Crema label of chardonnay and pinot noir, especially through delivery services such as Drizly and Instacart, Reitzell told me.

“People are home, but that doesn’t mean they have more time to go out shopping — and they may not want to,” Reitzell said. “These days, they are more accustomed to having things delivered to their homes.”

Some larger retailers may not yet be buying into this new sales channel. Vanessa Moore, owner of two Unwined stores in Alexandria, said she redeployed some store employees to handle home deliveries. That way she could keep her staff employed and not have to rely on third-party delivery services.

We consumers may not use Drizly, Minibar Delivery or other delivery apps to stock our cellars. But when the immediate stockpile of beer or wine is depleted, they can bring resupplies quickly and safely. And for smaller stores, the “mom and pops,” the ones that don’t have sophisticated online ordering systems or extra employees to handle deliveries, these services can be a sales channel to reach consumers unwilling to venture out — or at least, more accustomed to ordering in.

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