Wine eCommerce, the Pandemic and the New Normal | a Conversation with Last Bottle Wine’s Stefan Blicker

Stefan Blicker is one of the three founding partners at lastbottlewines.com. He has been writing about wine since the 90’s and is the Last Bottle Wines (LBW) chief wine taster and writer behind the website and email copy that you know and love. 

Stefan Bickler

How did 2020 start for LBW, was it business as usual?

Mostly normal. It’s a bit slower the first week of January, as people “recover” from the holidays and get back to work, then steadily picks up again. That is typical. We were on track for another growth year, but then…

business closed due to covid

The pandemic hit the country hard in March 2020, with many states closing non-essential businesses and enacting stay at home orders. How did that impact business at LBW from both a sales and operations perspective?

We were on a buying trip in France when the news hit and were basically ordered home ASAP. We flew in to Paris, took a train to Avignon, had dinner with one of the wineries we import (the awesome Poulvarel), toured the next day in Gigondas and dinner with Xavier Vignon, and got the call at 2AM to leave. Chaotic! Sales had already been picking up more than normal, but after the travel ban they skyrocketed. We were greatly relieved to be classified an essential business, as we ship DTC. As you know, everyone who sells online jumped. We adapted quickly, I think, and still are! We rented more space down the street, hired new warehouse and customer service people, implemented the safety protocols (which were ever changing) and started buying larger quantities of wine to keep up. We expanded shipping procedures, bought equipment,  promoted staff, increased pay, and basically rolled with it – you have to when you grow nearly 100% almost overnight…. we kept our heads down and did the work. We drank a lot of wine, too.

Did your customers’ buying patterns change? Was there ‘pantry loading’ like in brick and mortar grocery stores? Did any particular wines or price points grow more-so than others?

For the early part of the pandemic, honestly, EVERY category went up. Definitely some pantry loading, although my impression is people were drinking the wine as fast as it arrived and were liking what they got! Frequency and size of orders increased. It was clear people were warming to drastically increasing their online purchasing. As we collectively realized this was going to be the new norm, lower-priced wines were selling (and selling out) very quickly. As it continued into Fall, this normalized again to wines priced across the board, generally.

empty toilet paper aisle at the supermarket

Screen time across digital devices increased during the pandemic as people stayed home and consumed television, video games and apps at unprecedented rates. What was the impact of this behavior change on your customer emails? Did open and click through rates increase?

They skyrocketed. We held our first much-loved “Marathon Madness” (two days of jaw-dropping deals) sale in mid-April, and there were TRIPLE the usual amount of people on the site – over 10,000, 5,000 just on the site waiting before we even started. Crazy! Our sales were double what we expected during the two days. Page views doubled to over 4 million, AND duration session times doubled. Referrals and new signups tripled just on those 2 days, and you have to factor in that we still only send one email. We received 42,000+ orders (double 2019) on just those two days. The subsequent marathons, in August and December, were even bigger, with December’s our biggest ever by far.

It’s now February 2021, and we’re over a year into the pandemic. Did the customer behaviors that you saw change back in March revert back to normal or have they persisted and become the ‘new normal’?

We’re definitely in the new wine buying/drinking normal. All customers are buying more frequently. New customers that we acquired early on are still buying. Everyone is MUCH more comfortable buying online with confidence, and that includes a lot of people who might not have otherwise (non-heavy computer/phone users). I like to think it’s our level of wines (we get such killer stuff), pricing, and ease of use between the site and the app. We love the idea that someone who always bought Sauvignon Blanc on sale at BevMo is now buying Sancerre from us regularly!

What do you think the future looks like for wine eCommerce? Will customers who bought wine online for the first time in 2020 run back to the store as soon as it’s safe? Or will they continue to reach for their phone when they want a bottle of their favorite wine?

Hey, we ALL want to run back into a store!! Sure, there will be some of that, but it’s been an epiphany for a lot of wine drinkers, the vast selection, pricing, convenience and high-level customer service is a game-changer that is here to stay. Even when we CAN move around again, we’ll want to travel, hike, see friends/family, not shop! So we’re staying very optimistic. Cheers!

people toasting with red wine

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