Dogs set loose in the aisles, excessive perfume, phony French accents-wine store owners have seen (and hated) it all. Here’s a retailer’s-eye view of faux pas to avoid.
By Lettie Teague
Sept. 7, 2017
How do you become a wine merchant’s favorite customer, rate personal service and perhaps even receive an email when your favorite wine goes on sale? It seems pretty obvious: Visit the store often, get to know the sales staff and generally show your support. But what about the customer faux pas that might put a wine merchant off? In search of insight and a few good stories (of course), I asked retailers what they wish customers wouldn’t do while shopping in their stores.
Customers who put on fake French accents get on Daniel Posner’s nerves. Mr. Posner, proprietor of Grapes the Wine Company in White Plains, N.Y., reported that “a small group of people will be talking normally and then they’ll ask for a French wine, and all of a sudden they’re fluent in French.” Except that they are not; these customers usually mispronounce words and get the names wrong. “We will have to say, ‘What did you say?’ It’s totally unnecessary,” Mr. Posner said. Do customers ever put on, say, a fake Spanish accent? Occasionally, said Mr. Posner, but he confirmed that it’s most often fake French, and most often men who do it.
This problem seemed to be Mr. Posner’s alone, but another pet peeve cropped up repeatedly among the retailers I surveyed: customers who talk on their phones, ignoring the sales staff behind the counter or on the floor. One man actually completed an entire business deal while talking on his phone in Jeffrey Wolfe’s eponymous wine shop in Coral Gables, Fla., and then he walked out without buying a single bottle. The store had simply been a quiet place for him to complete a conversation. Mr. Wolfe was duly affronted. “Walking into my store is like walking into my home,” he said.
Harris Polakoff, the proprietor of Pogo’s Wine & Spirits in suburban Dallas, has also watched plenty of shoppers talk on the phone and ignore sales staff, and he’s had others who go a step further by putting headphones on after they finish their phone conversations, as if to guarantee there will be no interaction at all with the staff. But even that isn’t as off-putting as the customers who have walked into the store, declined Mr. Polakoff’s help and actually videotaped his wine shelves. “I thought that was rude,” said Mr. Polakoff. Not to mention odd.
Mr. Polakoff emphasized that the vast majority of his customers don’t wear headphones or videotape the bottles on his shelves-they’re people who visit a small, independent wine shop because they actually want to get the retailer’s advice and recommendations. A trained and knowledgeable sales staff is one of the great assets of a small business, as is the presence of the merchant him- or herself. Mr. Polakoff likes to help customers, too, especially since he and his staff have tasted most of the offerings in his store.
Sometimes a customer at MCF Rare Wine in Manhattan will actually pick up a bottle and ask proprietor Matt Franco if he’s tasted the wine. The fact that the store is quite small, with only 100 or so bottles on the shelves, doesn’t seem to register. Some people will even add, “Is it any good?” Shouldn’t the fact that Mr. Franco has culled his selection to such a tiny number signify that these are wines he likes?
Other times, a merchant feels hamstrung by a client’s perception of her shop. Gina Trippi, co-owner of Metro Wines in Asheville, N.C., recalled how she started carrying Apothic Red, a mass-market brand, to attract customers buying it at a large discount liquor store in town. But Apothic Red drinkers refused to buy it in her store. “They said, ‘Oh I couldn’t buy that wine in a nice wine shop,’ ” she said.
But reluctant Apothic Red drinkers don’t bother Ms. Trippi as much as the customers who refuse to take wine advice from a woman. If a female staffer approaches such customers (who include both men and women), they will most often just grin and keep walking toward a male staffer, said Ms. Trippi, who has both witnessed the phenomenon and experienced it herself. “They assume if it’s a woman staff member she won’t know what she’s talking about,” she said. What does Ms. Trippi, who is both a woman and the store’s co-owner, do when this happens? If the customer happens to be talking to her, Ms. Trippi will simply flag down a male staffer for help.
I find it hard to believe that in 2017, with so many women in the wine business, some shoppers actually presume a woman will be ignorant based on gender alone. But then I also have a hard time believing people would show up for store tastings reeking of perfume or cologne. But they do this as well, said Ms. Trippi.
Some customers also like to give their dogs free run of the shop. This was a common complaint among retailers. “They will just drop the leash,” marveled Mr. Franco, who has found a dog in his back office more than once.
Margaux Singleton posted a sign outside her Calistoga, Calif., business, Enoteca Wine Shop, that says, “Attention Dogs-No Pee Pee Here!” She’s not sure it’s comprehensive enough. “I’m thinking of changing it to ‘Dogs and Children,’ ” she said.
Retailer Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame, Calif., has a sign in his store warning customers they should not expect to find wine scores posted. It name-checks two famous wine publications, noting that Weimax is a “Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate Free Zone.” He said people who come in looking for a wine with a certain number of points often aren’t thinking about the wine itself-whether it fits their taste or will work with their meal. Mr. Weisl regards scores as detrimental to the enjoyment of wine. He worries that someone who buys a highly rated wine and doesn’t like it might conclude that he or she simply doesn’t like wine.
“A good wine merchant will ask the customer a few questions as to what characteristics they find appealing, what food they are pairing with the wine and what price range is comfortable,” he said.
‘Some customers also like to give their dogs free run of the shop, a common complaint among wine retailers.’
Like the other retailers I talked to, Gary Fisch, owner of the Gary’s Wine & Marketplace stores in suburban New Jersey, works the floor, though he notes this has its disadvantages. When he’s helping people, sometimes “they assume they can negotiate the price,” he said. Mr. Fisch prides himself on his pricing and will generally match most other stores’ prices, unless a wine is in limited supply. “When Insignia was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year,” Mr. Fisch offered by way of example, “we decided not to be the cheapest.” One customer was outraged when Mr. Fisch wouldn’t meet the price the man found on a competing retailer’s website, and he left in a huff. Mr. Fisch saw the same man in his shop a few days later, buying the same wine-apparently the online retailer didn’t have it in stock.
After hearing tales of poor etiquette and general gracelessness, I was relieved to realize I’d never committed such infractions. I’ve never worn headphones in a store, videotaped bottles or bargained on prices, let alone let my dogs off their leashes. I am, however, seriously considering putting on Maurice Chevalier’s accent the next time I visit Mr. Posner’s store-just to see if I can pull it off.