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Wine retailers say “I do” to gift registries

Wine retailers say “I do” to gift registries

Jennifer Strailey

Newlywed Sarah Churchill Isn’t sure how it happened. Whether it was walking down the aisle of her favorite San Francisco wine shop or after reading something in a magazine, the 34-year-old financial analyst and husband Mike, 39, decided to register for wine. But about this, Churchill is absolutely certain: “People are comfortable buying wine glasses as a gift–we got plenty of those. But they don’t want to buy a bottle of wine because they think once it’s drunk, their gift is forgotten.”

It’s a registry mindset with which Debbie Brown, manager of the Plump Jack wine store in San Francisco, is familiar. “The challenge is to get people to understand that the bride- and groom-to-be are saying, ‘Give us a memory,’ rather than ‘Buy us a coffeepot.'”

The 2.4 million couples who marry each year in the U.S.–many of them older than was once the norm-are redefining gift registries, signing up for everything from hardware at Home Depot to bottles of Bordeaux at their neighborhood wine merchant.

“Our registry tends to attract couples who are a little older,” Brown observes. “They already have a household together and don’t need the linens, crystal and sheets.” A bottle of 1997 Penfolds Grange on the other hand, gets today’s wine collecting couples off to a good start.

Retailers who are ready with a well-run wine registry stand to carve out a piece of the wedding pie–a sweet $50 to $72 billion a year industry. According to online wedding portal The Knot (theknot.com), $19 billion of that bounty comes from wedding gift registries.

The challenge in developing a wine wedding registry is selling the notion of wine as a memorable experience rather than a fleeting consumable. If you’re not within shouting distance of wine country, the plot thickens.

Sarah Churchill hails from the East Coast, and several of her wedding and bridal showers were hosted by friends and family back home. While Churchill’s West Coast friends were chipping in on a refrigerated wine cellar with storage for 750 bottles, her East Coast friends were deciding which Waterford crystal vase she’d like best. “People from the East Coast were like, ‘Wine for a wedding gift?'” recalls Churchill, in a voice that says wine is no more appropriate a gift than a year’s supply of toilet paper.

When wine buyer Tamara McAllister of In Good Taste, a wine purveyor and gourmet retailer in Portland, Ore., launched her store’s wine registry business a year and a half ago, she, too, faced the challenge of wedding parties from all corners of the country. But, in the 20 years that McAllister has been in the wine business, she finds the climate has never been more right for wine registries.

“People are not only more willing to try new and different wines, they really like surprises,” she notes. So after establishing a customer’s price range, McAllister navigates the gift buyer through her store’s 4,000 wines on a quest for a theme. Whether it’s Spanish wines to complement a cookbook and paella pan or 12 Northwest wines to be delivered to the newlyweds’ door each month for a year, the theme gives the wine context and turns drinking it into an adventure.

Encouraging wine-themed showers is another way to help couples fulfill their Champagne wishes and cuvge dreams. It’s an idea Churchill wishes she’d thought of sooner. “We did a poor job as bride and groom of promoting our wine registry,” she admits. Brown of Plump Jack, who worked with the Churchills on their registry, also learned from Sarah’s obstacles. East Coasters were reluctant to purchase wines for the showers, have them shipped east, then sent back to San Francisco with the bride-to-be. Gift cards or wine labels indicating that a particular wine has been purchased may be the solution.

Walk Them Down The Aisle

If the idea of a serious relationship with soon-to-be wed couples, their friends and family appeals to you, but the notion of computerized kiosks and elaborate ordering systems has kept you from taking the registry plunge, consider this: Plump Jack uses plain old pen and paper to track its registry. “We create a blank form and a list of all the wines the couple has registered for,” Brown explains. “When someone purchases a wine for their registry, it goes on the list, as does the number of bottles they bought. It’s not as technologically sophisticated as Macy’s, but it works for us.”

The retailer initiated a gift registry three years ago, and has watched that segment of its business grow. One reason for their success has been the novel upside of their somewhat antiquated registry system: Good old-fashioned customer service. “We call the couples who register with us and say, ‘Hey, guess what you got today?’ It’s a totally personal experience,” Brown asserts. “We interact with the recipients and the buyers.

We really get them excited about wine.”

After making an appointment with the bride and groom, Plump Jack gives the couple a wine questionnaire. Is the couple looking to build a wine cellar? Do they want everyday, special occasion wines or both? As Brown walks her couples through the store, they discuss varietal and style preferences, brands and whether the wines are for drinking now or on the couple’s 20th anniversary.

Registering couples need to feel the staff is not just knowledgeable about wines in general, but about their tastes specifically. Unlike stainless steel toasters and Egyptian cotton towels, that bottle of 1998 Leroy Clos de Vougeot may not be available two weeks before the big day. Plump Jack works around this by asking couples if they are comfortable with staff recommendations should a wine on their list be unavailable. “Most everyone says, ‘yes.’ So this is a great opportunity for us to introduce the couple to wines they don’t know about, new wines or wines from small producers,” Brown notes.

Wedded To Wine

One notable perk of establishing a wine registry is that it enhances your image as a resource for knowledgeable wine service. At In Good Taste, McAllister seizes every opportunity to tie the wine registry to other areas of the store. She works with the store’s catering director to host bridal-themed food and wine pairing classes designed to help couples plan rehearsal dinner and reception menus.

Retailers who don’t sell food can extend their reach in other ways. “We try to help coordinate wine for the reception and get a piece of that business as well,” says Brown of Plump Jack. “We do a lot of consultation for receptions, even if they don’t buy the wines from us. If you provide a level of service that very few places offer, the business will come back to you.”

Making a commitment to a wine registry means making a commitment to promoting it. To give their fledgling wine registry a boost, In Good Taste exhibited at a bridal show last year. “Our booth stood out because it wasn’t like all the others,” says McAllister, whose wines were a beacon in a sea of taffeta and sequins.

Plump Jack has stayed closer to home with its promotions, hiring a professional window dresser to design a wedding themed window for the months of June, July and August. Brown further promotes the wine registry through the Plump Jack newsletter, fliers and monthly e-mails.

Web sites can be another important tool. “It’s the way to go,” urges Churchill, who estimates 95 % of her gifts were shipped from Web orders. Statistics support Churchill’s experience. According to a shop.org annual study conducted by Forrester Research of more than 130 retailers, online retail sales brightened an otherwise lackluster retail climate, soaring to $76 billion in 2002, up 48 % from the previous year.

The Churchills are back from their Italian honeymoon and the wedding gifts, ordered online and in person, have been received. With their spacious 750-bottle capacity wine cellar installed, Sarah Churchill has time to reflect: “I used to think, ‘why would you get anyone a gift from their registry, it’s so impersonal?’ Now I realize that’s exactly what you should get. It’s a very personal gift.” And if it’s a great bottle of wine, it’s likely to be the gift they’ll remember most.

(Jennifer Strailey is a freelance food and wine writer based in Marin, Calif. She is a past associate editor Of the Gourmet Retailer magazine And has written about wine and Food for Spain Gourmetour magazine. She may be reached through edit@ Winesandvines.com.)

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