Customers today often walk out of a wine tasting room with more than just a bottle in hand: they take with them the experience of tasting the wine, learning about it, touring the vineyards from where it was produced.
It’s an experience difficult to replicate online. The internet doesn’t offer the same kind of sensory pleasure as does a physical tasting room – but, as the wine industry is slowly discovering, there are ways to offer the same level of one-on-one customer service.
Winery websites are increasingly implementing live chats, essentially portals that connect customers directly with a representative. They’re fairly ubiquitous in the world of online retail but rather new to wine, though chats are quickly becoming a critical customer service tool.
For Clif Family Winery, an 8,000-case-a-year winery that does “99.9 percent” of its business through direct-to- consumer sales, the live chat function has been a way to ensure a positive customer experience online, according to Director of Digital and Marketing Efrain Barragan. Chats, which often subtly appear as an option at the corner of a user’s screen, are a way to reach customers across the generational spectrum, from less online-savvy baby boomers to millennial or Generation X-er who would prefer not to have to pick up the phone for help.
“A lot of questions are about making reservations, about placing orders for the wine club,” Barragan said, calling the chat function “fantastic.” Their chat, essentially a Word Press plug-in, requires minimal investment: the most basic package is around $120 annually, though the price spectrum runs up to $300 (prices increase as representatives are added to the chat).
Barragan is normally the sole representative fielding chats and asking stagnant online customers if they’d like assistance. He finds it manageable, he added, noting that requests from customers simply pop up in the background on his computer through the day.
Clif Family added the chat to their website three or four years ago, according to Barragan, making them an early adopter within the wine industry. Chat functions have spiked in popularity in the last few years as online retailers curate their online customer service. Wine.com in 2019 reported that one third of company revenue came from users on mobile devices; revenue of their app, which allows users to access the live chat services, grew 60 percent.
“The biggest challenge so far has been helping people understand exactly what they’re looking at (while shopping online), particularly for people who don’t know much about wine,” Addie Wallace, director of new business strategy and insights for Wine.com, said.
The chat function, which Wine.com introduced in 2014, has been a way to communicate “a better understanding” of the wines to customers, according to Joe Kennedy, Wine.com’s head of customer service. The website employs a team of around 30 wine experts to chat with customers; some are sommeliers and others have worked in vineyards or wineries.
“The chat can be a key way for (customers) to unlock new areas of the wine world,” Kennedy added.
Luxury wines ($50 a bottle and up) are not typical retail. Customers do not step inside a clothing store for the experience of it, nor does trying on clothing inside a store necessarily provide the same kind of emotional connection to a product that tastings at wineries attempt to evoke.
Still, premium and luxury wines are not altogether immune to industry trends. Just last week, Rob McMillan, author of the Silicon Valley Bank state-of-the-industry report, wrote that lack of millennial demand for premium wine is “the issue of greatest concern for the industry.” And as millennials increasingly push consumer trends toward the ecommerce space, premium wines that have traditionally marketed their products exclusively as experiences rather than as items to be placed in carts could find themselves struggling.
Wine.com also reported growth in sales from millennial customers – Wallace said she believes that growth is linked to success of the app (and the chat), though use of the function spans the generational spectrum.
Vintage Wine Estates, the owner of five Napa wineries including Clos Pegase and Girard Winery, implemented a live chat function on each of its 14 winery websites in March 2019, according to Chief Digital Officer Jessica Kogan.
“It goes without saying that live chat helps mitigate cart abandonment,” Kogan said. Vintage Wine Estates’ chat service offer customers the option to connect, via text message, with a representative from the respective winery. “We get questions about everything from booking reservations, directions to wineries and positive feedback about sales associates.”
Cart abandonment – customers adding items to their cart but ultimately leaving the website before making a purchase – is a concern across e-commerce platforms. The chat provides “an immediate response” to address abandonment prompts, Kogan said.
“For e-commerce, it’s a must. For omnichannel, it’s a triple must,” Kogan added. She’s referring to an idea that’s quickly gained traction in the world of online retail – catering to where and how the customer wants to shop, and integrating the shopping experience across mediums, whether that’s in the tasting room, through the wine club or online.
“Omnichannel is new to the wine industry, because we’ve always looked at each channel as silos,” Kogan said, adding she believes it’s “just a matter of time” until it becomes a more common practice. “It’s a little more challenging for the industry because technological adoption has been a little slower.”
Ultimately, Barragan said, the live chat is a way to ensure success for customers who come to the website with the intent to purchase product – which translates into success for Clif.
“It helps answer quick questions rather than having the customer go through a phone tree,” Barragan said, praising the real-time nature of the medium. “Some tools allow you to see who has left your site – this allows you to catch customers before they actually leave.”
You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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