“The wine retail market has been surprisingly resilient,” says John Kapon, the third-generation chairman of Acker Wines in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Acker, also known as Acker, Merrall & Condit over its lifetime, is celebrating its bicentennial, having been founded in 1820 as a purveyor of high-end foods and drink. It claims to be America’s oldest wine store.
So how is America’s oldest wine store adapting to this most recent economic crisis? Like other retailers, Acker is moving more of its sales online. It is hosting virtual wine tastings to replace sales events it used to host in its store. And, as one of the world’s leading wine auction houses, it is conducting more of its luxury collection sales exclusively online.
Kapon’s grandfather bought the store in the 1960s, and Kapon has been active in it since the 1990s. He has steered the store through the market disruptions of 9/11 and the Great Recession, both of which saw sharp but temporary drops in sales. This time, he says, is different. Sales are up.
Wine retailers across the country have pivoted from in-store sales to an improvised market plan of curbside pickup, local delivery and online sales. Acker’s store, now closed to customers, is open only to process online orders. In New York, as in many states around the country, alcoholic beverage stores have been allowed to stay open and have been granted exemptions from certain restrictions against delivery and shipping direct to consumers. Kapon is also leading online virtual tastings with winemakers and importers.
“Our online sales are up 300 percent,” Kapon told me in a telephone interview. Overall sales in March were up 20 percent over the same month a year ago. Those online sales include people ordering wine for curbside pickup. In other words, the people who used to walk through the door on their way home, looking to buy a bottle for dinner or a few for the weekend, are now ordering online for delivery or pickup.
Why are sales up this time, instead of down as in previous disruptions? Kapon attributes that to the Internet and the rise of online shopping. “It’s a natural evolution. People are used to buying things online now,” he said. “Our walk-in traffic shifted immediately to online. Some people still call on the phone and ask for delivery, but the large increase in online sales is directly related to the lack of in-store shopping. I think some of these new habits may last a while, as people will be afraid of resuming old patterns quickly.”
Kapon said the luxury wine market, as seen through Acker’s auction houses in New York and Hong Kong, is also holding strong so far. The store held two live auctions in late March and early April — one based in each city — that sold a total of $7 million of wine. Acker’s auctions have featured online bidding for years, but these were the first two conducted totally online. “It was like a normal auction for us except there was not a room where people congregated and bid in person,” Kapon said.
Some people will always have insane amounts of money to spend on wine. But what happens after this initial boost in demand, if we realize this pandemic will not be short-lived, but these restrictions will last for the long haul?
First, Kapon said he hoped the temporary measures helping retailers stay in business by delivering or shipping wines directly to consumers will become permanent.
“These laws that date back to Prohibition, about shipping or delivering wine, who can sell what and where, it all seems outdated,” he said. “It’s time for a reset.”
Stores such as Acker with an already established online presence may be able to adapt to the sharp market swings in the initial phase of this economic downturn. But Kapon knows the boost is coming in part at the expense of restaurants, as consumers turn from dining out to dining in during the age of self-isolation and social distancing.
“Let’s face it, the on-premise category is being devastated,” he said, referring to restaurants. “Some of that is offset by business moving to [retail], but that’s not something we want at the expense of the other wine ambassadors, the sommeliers.” Importers and distributors, who depend on restaurant sales for a large percentage of their business, are also being hurt.
“It’s been a lot of boom and not a lot of bust, thankfully,” Kapon says of his decades in wine. “Nowadays, it is terrifying for everyone.”
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