Wine Shipping Challenges in the Age of Amazon
10.08.2018  |  by Dave Dobrow

The wine shipping and logistics game has changed a lot over the past 10 years, in no small part due to Amazon and its shipping strategies. But there are important differences between shipping a typical consumer item bought in Amazon’s online store and shipping a bottle of wine. This has two repercussions:

One, a winery or other merchant shipping wine DTC cannot simply copy what Amazon and other online retailers are doing. There’s much more depth and complexity (just like great wine!) in a successful wine shipping strategy.

Two, even though shipping wine takes a different strategy, the customer doesn’t necessarily know that. Consumer expectations have already been formed by Amazon’s practices; for example, they assume that 2-day shipping is always possible, that wineries can ship anywhere in the U.S., and so forth. Wineries must take an active role in shaping the consumer’s expectations when it comes to the delivery of wine.

So just how is wine shipping different, and what challenges do you have to look forward to? Having been in the business for at least as long as Amazon, we found 22 ways (and counting) that shipping wine is different, and how this affects your fulfillment strategy:

Wine is about Lifestyle

Wine has way more meaning for most consumers than, say, a pair of jeans or a mixer for the kitchen. This means the expectations around a shipment of wine are going to be different:

1. Wine is usually tied to a life event. While some consumers will simply take a risk and buy a bottle of wine from an online store, sight unseen, the majority of wine shipped directly to consumers is first sampled at a winery tasting room or a special event. Thus a wine will usually be associated with the circumstances in which it is purchased: a holiday vacation to wine country, a wedding reception, etc. This means that…

2. Wine is fun, and the delivery experience has to remind them of that. People love getting deliveries, but there is something special about getting a bottle of wine from your favorite winery. The unpacking experience should remind them of the good times they had, and encourage them to “keep the party going.” (For more on creating a memorable unpacking experience, see our Deeper Dive Into the Unpacking Experience in DTC Wine Sales.)

Wine is Delicate

3. Wine is a perishable luxury item. Although a bottle of wine can sit on a shelf for some time and not develop any problems, it is still sensitive to heat, cold, and impact. This means that packing and shipping wine must be done with care—especially considering the high price tag on some vintages.

4. Wine vessels are almost always made of glass. Glass is, of course, fragile. And when a wine vessel breaks, the contents will spill out and ruin most of the package. In the rare case when the carrier continues on with this type of delivery, this creates a horrible experience for the end consumer, not to mention the potential for injury and a costly return.

5. If breakage occurs, the customer needs to know. If a bottle is damaged in transit, the entire package is supposed to be returned to the shipper, rather than being sent on to the consumer as stated above; moreover, this can create a huge delay in the order. The end customer needs to be made aware of this, or else they might become upset at the unusually long shipping time and lack of communication. Even better:send a replacement right away and allow the customer to track the new shipment.

6. Wine is weather sensitive. As said above, wine is sensitive to heat and cold, and therefore cannot be shipped when there are temperature extremes (unless special measures are taken). This can affect the time of year that wine can be shipped, when a weather hold needs to be put into effect, where the wine can be shipped to, and what routes it can take.

7. The weather can also affect how wine is received. A typical package from Amazon can be left on a doorstep, no matter if it’s sunny and warm or cold and snowy. Due to wine’s sensitivity (and the need for an Adult Signature), this is simply not an option.

8. Returns create more opportunities for problems. If a shipment is returned or rerouted, there are fresh opportunities for breakage and spoilage. And, as we’ll see below, there are many reasons why a wine delivery might be re-routed or returned.

9. Wine can have limited availability. If you enjoy a particular vintage, there are only so many bottles of that vintage available. Some types of wine are special vintages and might not ever be made again. This exacerbates all the problems that come with breakage and spoilage—not to mention customers upset that they could not receive their favorite vintage!

Wine Has Unique Compliance Issues

Compliance and regulatory rules for shipping alcohol, including wine, are complex and variable;  Ignoring these rules is very risky. Wine shipping is heavily regulated by the states, which means that licensing and compliance play a big role in what a wine seller can and cannot do. (For more on this, see our interview with Jeff Carroll from earlier this year.) For example:

10. Adult Signatures are required on alcoholic items, including wine. In states where it is legal to ship wine direct to consumer, the package must still be signed for by someone that is over the age of 21. If no one over the age of 21 is home when the carrier tries to make a delivery, the package cannot be delivered. (And no, it cannot be left on the porch or with a neighbor like most other packages can!)

11. Alcohol cannot be delivered to a P.O. box. Some consumers will try to get their shipment sent to a P.O. box. We notice that this happens if they’ve had a history of stolen packages, or know that no one over the age of 21 will be present during the day. But, legally, you cannot ship wine to a P.O. box.

12. Wine cannot be shipped to some states at all. Although the number is shrinking, there are still some states to which you cannot ship wine from out of state. Use this link to the Wine Institute to see the most current guide.

13. The states where it is legal to ship require a license. And yes, most states require a separate license. Each state also has its own licensing fees. Also, which kind of license type you have (02 winery, 17/20 retailer, 85 online retailer, etc.) dictates which states you can legally ship to. (These and other considerations need to be addressed before you even start offering to ship wine out of state.)

14. Wine cannot  be left at the door. Suppose a delivery comes to your home, but you’re not there. With a typical merchandise delivery from Amazon, the carrier can leave the package on the porch or with a neighbor. Those are not options with wine. The package must be brought back to the shipping facility, with either the customer going there to pick up the package, or with another delivery attempt being made at a later date.

15. Wine cannot be rerouted cross state lines. If a consumer knows they will be away from home during the day of delivery, they can easily arrange to have an item shipped to their office, or a,convenient, carrier approved, pickup location etc. This creates issues, however, if the shipment contains wine and the office or house is in a different state.

Wine Shipping Has a Different Economics

Given the above, it should be no surprise that shipping a bottle of wine is often more expensive than shipping your average Amazon order. Customer expectations have to be managed accordingly. For example:

16. Shipping wine is costly. Wine is heavy, which means it costs more to ship. Add in special packaging to guard against breakage, and other items needed to create a great experience, and the charges for picking, packing, and shipping can seem quite steep. Consumers need to understand this, or else they will experience some sticker shock.

17. Shipping wine can never be free. Amazon can offer free shipping on orders over a certain amount, or to their Prime members. But one must be careful with wine. California law, for example, explicitly states that a business selling DTC cannot use free shipping as a promotion on alcohol. This means that wineries selling DTC need to try other strategies, like flat rate or reduced shipping. (For more on these options, download our free white paper Discounted, Flat Rate, or Free Shipping: What’s the Right Strategy?)

18. The choice of carrier matters much more for wine. Different carriers are going to create different experiences and cater to different expectations when it comes to a wine delivery. For example, a regional carrier might allow for a cheaper shipping choice, but they will not be able to ship to other states. Or, another carrier might be slightly faster but does not offer a Saturday delivery service. Carriers, then, must be chosen carefully and with attention to buying patterns.

Communication About Wine Delivery is Key

Given all of the above, the way we communicate with consumers about their wine delivery needs to be different. There needs to be a lot more attention to detail involved. For example:

19. Customers need reasonable expectations when it comes to delivery date and time. Of course, the carrier, not the winery, controls the delivery. Still, given that a wine delivery cannot be left and must be signed for by someone who is 21 or older, the customer needs to make reasonable arrangements to receive the package. This requires fairly precise delivery dates and times.

20. Customers must be kept updated. If, for some reason, a package cannot make those reasonable delivery dates, the customer must be made aware. Do they need to go to a facility to pick up the package? Or is it late because there was breakage, and items need to be reshipped? Is there a weather delay? Nothing is worse than anticipation that is met only with silence.

21. Communication with customers has to be done through multiple channels. The average e-retailer can get away with a few emails detailing delivery. Because there are so many more expectations around wine (and so many more issues and restrictions), anyone selling wine directly to consumers needs to avail themselves of multiple channels. Email, text, social media Direct Messages, and even phone calls are all on the table.

22. The consumer needs to feel empowered. The message, of course, is just as important as the medium. Where possible, give the consumers a choice and allow them to take control of the experience. For example, if a package could not be delivered because no one was home, give them the option of either picking it up themselves, or waiting for the carrier to try redelivery. By giving them a choice, they will feel less like a victim—and will appreciate your working with them to get their package delivered.

Needless to say, there are many complexities when it comes to getting your wine into the hands of your customers. Unfortunately, Amazon and other retail giants have made it seem relatively simple. The complexity and the cost can actually hurt sales when a consumer faces the reality of buying wine online or through a wine club.

So: Form your wine shipping strategy, draw up your policies, educate your consumer, and work on making the shipping experience something fun and memorable, not something complicated and horrible. When you are ready to take the leap and discover the best ways to do this for your winery, go ahead and reach out. I’d love to talk over a cup of coffee!

Dave Dobrow

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