NEW YORK — Many stores have been temporarily closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Wine and liquor shops, however, have been deemed an essential business in much of the country and remain open. For those who have been quarantined for weeks, especially with kids, it’s easy to understand why. Alcohol can offer the illusion of escape when, really, there is no escape.
As Ernesto Vega, owner of Table Wine in Jackson Heights, New York, recently suggested, “It has proven to be a way for people to unwind and deal with their stress.”
In stressful times, a want can seem more like a need. Cutting off access can create its own dangers. Pennsylvania initially closing all its liquor stores led people to seek out their alcoholic beverages elsewhere. According to Michael Fishman, a co-owner of Quarry Wine & Spirits in Pikesville, Maryland, which is less than 40 miles from its northern neighbor, “people are going across the state line. Travel is exactly what you don’t want people to be doing in a situation like this. And they were crowding stores. There’s a demand for beer, wine and spirits in a time like this. And not satisfying them in a community can be dangerous.”
Strictly speaking, alcohol isn’t needed to survive like, say, food. Grocery stores are obviously essential, as are banks and pharmacies and gas stations. While the definition of ‘essential’ can be a little loose, sellers of wines and spirits don’t make the rules. They do, however, have to conduct business in an extremely restrictive economic climate.
Business, so far, has been good for wine shops, or at least better than what could have been. Some of it resulted from a general initial uncertainty about just what the coming weeks held. “There was a bit of a panic in the beginning,” recounts Vega about his experience at New York’s Table Wine. “People… they didn’t realize that we were going to be able to stay open. Business those first couple weeks was very brisk. There were a few days that almost felt like the holidays as far as business.”
Fishman at Quarry Wine & Spirits in Baltimore has noticed a similar level of urgency among many of his customers. Then again “We’re definitely seeing people buying more,” he said. “The customer count is about the same, but the average sale is up.”
Increased sales, combined with additional free time spent inside, may very well point to heightened consumption. Certainly broad stay-at-home orders create ample time for distraction. And anecdotal evidence from social media suggests drinking has become a quarantine pastime.
What types of wines are people turning to to fill the hours? At Table Wine, “they’re more of the value wines,” says Vega. “We have the 12-[dollars]-and-under table. They definitely sell a lot. Some of the more expensive wines that we usually don’t sell as much, sometimes people are going that route as well. But overall it’s definitely a little bit value-oriented, things that people are used to.”
Another explanation for steady wine sales could be the need for comfort. Many consumers are seeking out comfort foods as a way to find some security in nostalgia. Familiarity is probably also a factor for wine consumers who just want to drink what they know.
Regardless, price is always a factor in an uncertain economy. “Some people are being a little bit more economical because times are difficult,” notes Fishman of Quarry Wine and Spirits. “Some people who are maybe use to going out to dinner more often find it to be not as expensive, so they’re splurging a little bit on the wine. It’s been a little bit of both.”
Selling these essential wines to wanting consumers has led to some logistical challenges. Social distancing must be maintained at all times, so neither Table Wine nor Quarry Wine & Spirits allow customers in their store. But location is also a factor.
Table Wine is located on a once-busy shopping avenue in a Queens neighborhood where people tend to shop on foot. Without that foot traffic, and without an app, the telephone becomes the lifeline. “The best thing, if you’re doing it for pickup, is to call,” says Vega. “We’ll figure out what you want, figure out your order. We will take your credit card information to process everything there over the phone, and we’ll have your bottles waiting. No one is allowed in the store, so we do have a bench outside blocking our entrance-way. When you do walk up to the door, we’ll notice you outside. We’ll open the door, ask you your name. We’ll ask you to back up. We’ll put your items on the bench, and then we’ll back up. You pick up your items.”
This coronavirus six-foot two-step changes when cars are involved. Quarry Wine & Spirits is located in a tastefully manicured strip mall and does much of its business through its website and app.
“We have an online portal, basically a store on our website. So basically customers can place an order and [give us] the time. And we have it ready for them. And we can bring it to their car, curb-side pickup.”
Going to this model almost exclusively has presented yet more challenges. Quarry Wine & Spirits was in the process of transitioning to a more robust website and app when the world changed. The new systems is “…a lot more labor intensive for us to fill the orders because we’re pulling them all ourselves.”
Busy employees can be a positive sign. And things are so busy at Quarry that they’ve had to hire additional associates to help with the workload, even as the jobless rate sinks deeper into double digits. Optimism is hard to come by these days. Wave after wave of bad news threatens to drown us all. But wine stores remain open and supported by their customers, proving their essential nature in these difficult times.