How Black Friday Causes Specialist Suffering.
I have to apologise from the very start of this article. Of course that is not like me at all, no Sir-ee! Mainly because the title of this article is from the a song on the Cypress Hill Album ‘Black Sunday’. Ok, wrong day I suppose for what I had in mind for this article. And while it is NOT like me, I actually own this album and listen to it on a rare occasion and enjoy it. You can’t listen to shoegaze all the time (apparently). What is at least accurate to some degree in my opinion is the topic today does have a slight whiff of insanity about it, although probably of a type we may not be aware of and suffer from in varying degrees. It’s about how we allow ourselves to become blind to the obvious.
Once again my conscience has been pricked to write an article in defence of a body of people that have been undera silent attack for quite some time and since March 2020 this has been intensified. Unfortunately it is whisky drinkers that seem to be the people who allow it to happen, albeit not doing the attacking themselves. Given how friendly the whisky community is, I’m surprised that there seems to be little promotion and concern to people that are vital to our hobby, passion, or more to the point – obsession.
Independent whisky shops have had a tough time of it for some time now. This is something I raised on my blog Facebook page back in March of this year, going as far to break my anonymity and release a couple of videos. Use the Facebook links below to navigate to the page if you want to see the videos. In most cases these smaller retailers cannot compete with online retailers such as Amazon and don’t have the collective buying power of chains like The Whisky Shop, Oddbins or Majestic to name one or two. And you can forget any hope of being able to complete with any of the supermarkets.
What triggered this was the amount of people who seemed to be upset that there seemed to be not very many Black Friday deals on Amazon this year. I’m not having a go – in full disclosure I’ve bought booze from Amazon when I’ve seen a bargain, but usually it is when I cannot get a bottle anywhere else at that time. An Old Pultney 17 was my first bottle that I did this with just after it was discontinued and latterly when Glengoyne 18 was slashed to £70, though that was just before the change of packaging and it was bought for stash. Maybe for later of course…
In a quick moment of research, certainly here in the UK are a myriad of places that do online only retailing. Drink Supermarket, Master Of Malt, Drinks Direct, 31 Dover, and Spirit Store are just a handful and I’d be sure that this would be replicated overseas where specialist whisky retailers may be thin on the ground. Even Whisky Exchange which does have a couple of shops probably makes the vast majority of its profits from online trading.
Look. I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad about seeking a bargain. It’s been a tough year for everybody with many people locked down for long periods of time; people losing their freedom, contact with family and friends, their jobs; people possibly losing a lot more. And I can hardly hold the moral high ground as I have made the occasional purchases from some of these retailers, especially Master Of Malt as the Drinks By The Dram give me a chance to taste older or more expensive whiskies without having to cough up for a full bottle. However let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective.
While online shopping may be very convenient and cheap (as an Aberdonian I can assure you this is very close to my heart!), let’s look at some very plain to see facts that often get ignored and I see no evidence to the contrary that we seem to be suffering selective blindness to these issues. Amazon does not need your money. Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s do not need your booze money. Let’s face it, despite the fun of #WhiskySanta, a company giving away £250,000 of drink does not need your booze money. However the hypocrite in me is very happy to promote the company by making my #WhiskySanta wishes. If they are generous enough to ‘pay’ quarter of a million quid for over a month of free social media advertising I’m taking my chance. You can bet your bottom dollar that an independent retailer of Whisk(e)y would probably wet themselves if they thought they could make £250,000 of profit, let alone be able to afford to give it away. And they certainly do need your custom.
Speaking of local experience here in the Highlands, I can think of at least 4 local-ish (50 miles away still counts as local!) independent whisky retailers that have suffered the double whammy COVID has delivered. Not only were they forced to close their businesses when COVID first took hold, the businesses concerned were also in tourist areas, so once they’ve been allowed to open, there’s a lack of the normal crowds to sell to. I’m thinking of shops in Aberlour, Dufftown, Tomintoul, Pitlochry, Tyndrum, Inverary and Skye to name a few. The cancellation of the Spirit Of Speyside festival this year hit our region hard and without the same footfall, the whisky retailers in the area have had to rely on online sales to generate income. It doesn’t mean independent whisky retailers in large towns and cities aren’t suffering too – at least they have more chance of local footfall than one in the middle of the Cairngorms.
The majority of independent retailers have not got the same profit margins to reduce stock prices and remain viable. Some are forced to deal with wholesalers as they cannot buy directly with the distilleries or bottlers, further reducing competitiveness with online only businesses. To be fair to Amazon, there is plenty of independent traders use Amazon market place, but this is still not perfect as this still involves selling fees that further reduce margins. And therein could be the reason that there wasn’t so many Black Friday deals – perhaps the majority of them in the past have been supplied not from Amazon but small traders. They certainly cannot afford to be giving massive discounts at the moment.
The greatest benefit to dealing directly with an independent trader is that you’ll receive something that you’ll never get online – by buying over the phone or in person you’ll receive a personal service. Think about this when you next shop with an independent whisky retailer. They can tell you what is new. They usually have a great knowledge of the whiskies they sell. If you can visit one, you may get to try before you buy; something that has often seen me buy more than expecting to. You can build a relationship where the retailer may be privy to information that maybe of interest to you and they may tell you first, or at least keep a hard to find bottle back for you. At least one Whisky Twitterer has said he enjoys this type of situation and I have also found myself in this pleasant position too.
This whole subject brings me back to a similar situation in a different retail environment; music. As I alluded to at the start of this article, I’m heavily into music, especially indie / shoegaze / post rock. There used to be a shop in Aberdeen called One-Up, of which I was a very regular customer. I always used them as the chances of finding something new, exciting and possibly undiscovered was high. But the ultimate draw was the service. The staff were excellent and one in particular, the well known shoegazer in local circles, Yogi Duncan used to recommend bands and albums to me so I could listen to it before making a decision. This was music I’d never have heard otherwise and would not be likely to see the suggestion on iTunes. You just don’t get that specialist service online and are at the mercy of an algorithm to suggest what you might like in the future. Just because some tracking cookie sees I’ve bought one album, doesn’t mean I’ll like the whole genre though it’s certainly cheaper to take a risk on a £10 CD than a £70 bottle of whisky.
It came to pass that CD buying fell out of fashion. People turned to downloads and with large overheads compared to online sales and a desire of one of the business partners to retire meant on the 18th of January 2013, One-Up closed for good. Since that store has gone, I’ve gradually fallen out of buying music. Perhaps it’s my age having an influence as well, but in the past 2 years I’ve found myself downloading more and more; my once proud music CD collection all but stagnated. For me nearly 8 years on, I and many others from the North East of Scotland still mourn the loss of One-Up
Regardless of my feeling, while digital retailing doesn’t mean we’ll fall out of love with whisky (goodness no!) it does mean we risk slowly falling out of touch with a more intimate way of connecting with the industry. If we only see what is advertised on line or by who we follow on social media, to me it just becomes a cacophony of marketing noise and other people’s opinion. The lack of personal contact within the whisky retail industry really means to me we are all perhaps following around on each other’s coat tails and are at the mercy of anonymous algorithms and advertising budgets which pigeon-hole us and see us getting targeted into purchasing blandness.
Let’s be clear however, as there is more we can do. It isn’t just spending our hard earned cash at independent whisky retailers that helps. Many of us on social media have our own blogs. Why not give one of the independent retailers a shout out on your blog? Review a bottle bought from them. Better still, if they bottle their own or have exclusive bottles to their shop, review one. I recently did, and the email that I received from the owner was one of pure gratitude. Not just because I genuinely enjoyed the whisky he had bottled, but because as an independent retailer in an area highly dependent on tourism it had been a tough year and he was over the moon to see his products promoted in such a way.
My blog is tiny and insignificant. However due to my review of his whisky, I know of 25 confirmed bottle sales as a direct result of what I said. Maybe only 4% of the bottling run, but that is sales that put money into a local business and a local economy; not into the bottomless pockets of CEO’s who don’t care a jot about whisky but just want your cash. If you don’t spend your whisky money at Amazon or get a Black Friday deal from an online only retailer, they aren’t that likely to go bust. Of course not everybody has the funds to avoid being frugal when it comes to whisky purchases, this year especially. The Mr Grumpy in me understands the situation and there is nothing wrong with that. Note: I’ve seen some whisky cheaper in an independent shop than on Amazon. Some retailers do promotions on free shipping if spending over a threshold amount. Shop wisely.
2020 has a lot of negative things to look back on. Don’t let it be the beginning of the end for a friendly independent whisky shop. Perhaps make an effort to reduce or let go of our building dependence on cheap online only sales. Once lockdown is finished, be sure to pop into one of the independent spirit retailers close to you. They’ll thank you for it.
Feedback is welcome on this subject. My aim isn’t to offend but highlight the smaller businesses that struggling on an already uneven playing field. What’s your opinion?
After One Up closed, Yogi Duncan was working in an Oddbins in Aberdeen. He could have become my shoegaze, wine and whisky guru, but sadly I left Aberdeen the same year as the lights went out at One Up forever. Then the nearest independent music shop was Imperial Records in Inverness, but sadly this closed the following year in 2014. Another store with a stunning customer service lost to the digital shopping paradigm, a service made more special due to the owner Mark and I having some great conversations based on initially realising a shared love of the music of Galaxie 500.
Yours in Spirits
Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.
One Up, Allt Dour; – Authors Own
Old Pulteney 17 – Amazon
Katsize Lingerie – Facebook.
All others – Shutterstock