In some ways, things haven’t changed despite the lockdown, even with converting the bar & bottleshop into an off-licence that does local home deliveries. Wednesdays remain as ever my main delivery day: fresh stock continues to arrive, photos need be taken, prices need to be logged and room needs to be found in the stockroom.
These days though the stockroom is on full display, since being relocated to the ground floor. And one of my alltime favourite activities – breaking down boxes for recycling – is now an exercise in finding empty boxes that I can use for packaging.
On a typical day I arrive at the premises between 9-10am. If there’s shopping to do or errands to run then the nearby precinct is quiet that time of the morning. Sometimes as well I’m summoned on the phone by a courier wanting to drop off a delivery, but thankfully I live a 5-minute drive away (that is one of the drawbacks of having beer delivered by courier, not knowing what day they might arrive).
I make a point of not checking my phone or the Facebook inbox until about half 11. Facebook has an ‘out-of-office’ feature so everyone receives an automatic reply to remind them I am not yet open for business. According to my licence I am not allowed to trade until noon anyway so I do not complete any transactions before then. Without those distractions I can focus on opening the post, paying bills and updating the socials with new photos.
Today I had my weekly churn through my stock which nowadays covers all of the tables and much of the floor at the front of the premises. Have I priced everything? Is everything for sale? What am I running low on? How can I better organise the stock? What boxes are almost empty? On a pre-lockdown Wednesday you would have found me in the stockroom breaking down every available box to stuff into the recycling bin, but these days a sturdy box is a precious thing so I am careful to hang onto these for deliveries.
In an earlier post I alluded to how I’m running out of things I thought I’d never use. About two years ago when I was first invited to run a craft beer stall at the local artisan market I was selling a mix of 330ml bottles and 500ml bottles. I initially had a large stock of two different cardboard gift boxes, depending on the size of the bottle, but when it became clear that 500ml bottles were more popular at the market – and 330ml bottles began to be phased out in favour of cans – I found myself left with at least a couple hundred gift boxes designed to hold 6 x 330ml bottles. For years these sat untouched in the loft…now I’m down to my last dozen after realising they can perfectly hold 6 x 440ml tallboys instead just as well. After using these as the default for all deliveries, I now save them for any orders that are being bought as a present.
For most orders (up to 8 cans) I am using plain white carrier bags (or ‘handy bags’) that the pound shop sells by the roll. For bottles of beer, gin, wine, etc I rely on my supply of leftover sturdy boxes. With the dry weather I’ve not had to worry about leaving cardboard out in the rain, but most customers tend to be home when I’m doing deliveries anyway and the beers don’t tend to linger outside for long.
Right before noon I’ll have a bite of lunch and read the news headlines before diving into the messages that have been coming in. I do a quick skim to see if anyone wants to come collect anytime soon.
There’s quite a few ways people can contact me and I have to remember to check them all in turn. While reading each message I take notes on a pad of paper, starting with how I received the message so I can find it quickly again if need be.
Anyone using the contact form on the website has already had to fill in some obligatory information to filter out spam. Since starting home deliveries I’ve tweaked the contact form so it asks for their mobile number too which saves time when it comes to processing payments.
I’m alerted by emails to Outlook on my laptop when a contact form has been submitted, but one issue I’ve had is that my replies are occasionally treated as spam. There is a reminder for customers next to the contact form asking them to check their spam folders for my reply, but having their mobile numbers from the outset means I can chase them up by text.
I also receive Outlook emails when someone sends a message by Twitter, but I also have to check to see if anyone has made a comment on any of my tweets, so Twitter stays open on my laptop all day.
Most orders come in via Facebook, which is also linked to our Instagram account. Again, it’s important that I regularly check for comments on my posts in case there are any questions or requests to follow up on.
When messages come in through the socials my phone makes various noises and although I’m stood at the laptop with notifications flashing up in front of me I still check my phone now and again since some customers have my number and will send me an order by text or WhatsApp. These also tend to be the customers who like to collect from outside the premises, sometimes with only a 1-hour warning, so I prioritise their orders as I go along.
The benefit of social media is that most customers have a recognisable photo of themselves on their profiles so I can verify their age. For orders by email from anyone that I don’t recognise I ask for photo ID. It is also my duty to ensure they are drinking responsibly which requires caution both in terms of the volumes being ordered and the circumstances. If someone asked for say 3 cases of beer or it’s clear when delivering that a gathering is taking place then I would refuse the order.
I keep a pile of scrap paper for recording order notes: name of the customer, their phone number, whether they want delivery or will be collecting, their address for delivery, any special instructions and the order itself. Most times my customers are buying something specific so it only takes a couple of minutes to pick their order and send a text with the payment link. If someone asks for both wine or spirits with their beer, or venture ‘off the menu’ as it were then it takes more time to pick out what they want, price their items and find a suitable container to hold everything.
The ‘menu’ or ‘catalogue’ is a series of photos kept on the bar’s Facebook page in albums called ‘beer for delivery’ and ‘wine and spirits for delivery.’ It’s not a line by line inventory and it doesn’t show real-time availability, although I check it daily. For anyone not on Facebook I can take screenshots of the photos, after they have told me what style of beers they are interested in.
I decided quite early in the lockdown to not list individual beers for sale, but instead to group similar beers that would fit different price points.
So for instance there’s a ‘pick and mix pales’ miscellany of 6 beers, mainly session pales and lagers, that I can sell for £18. The ‘sesh’ is a trio of beers (2 cans of each) for £20, all pale and sessionable and from prestigious local breweries like Cloudwater, Marble and Track. Next up are ‘proper IPAs’ around 5-6% which I can sell 6 for £25. The ‘chocolate box’ assortment are the dark beers, mainly on the sweeter side: imperial milk stouts, barleywines, pudding ales etc which are 6 for £30.
I was caught on the hop towards the start of this venture after completely misjudging the thirst for fruity pales and sours. It took me well over a fortnight to build up the stock but I can now offer a ‘fruit salad’ assortment of fruit beers and milkshake IPAs (6 for £18) and a ‘sour selection’ which is 6 for £25 due to their strength. It is also common for customers to request ‘a sour or two’ to go with the other beers in their order.
A quick word on profit margin: ever since fully refrigerating the ‘bottle shop’ stock at the premises I have worked on a pricing strategy that differentiates between buying a can of beer to take home vs opening a can of beer to drink at the bar vs asking for a pint of beer over the bar.
To determine the ‘drinking in’ price of a can I take its ex VAT case price and divide by half of the units in that case to arrive at a VAT inclusive price (for a beer that arrives in a case of 12 and costs £24 ex VAT that’s 24/6 or £4.00 inc VAT to drink in). In our bar & bottle shop days if a customer picked up that £4 can of beer from the fridge and asked to take it home to drink they were given a 10% discount and would have paid £3.60. The customer saves money by not paying ‘corkage’ because they are not drinking their purchase at the bar.
Corkage is the premium a customer is expected to pay for occupying a seat to drink a beer that has been chilled, asking for the use of a glass, enjoying my air-conditioning, going to the loo, then returning an empty can that I need to recycle along with a glass that I need to clean.
These days of course there is no drinking in but I still start with that price and then knock off 10% to arrive at the delivery price.
Ever since the day we opened the bar we have dealt directly with as many local breweries as possible. We are exceedingly lucky to have the likes of Dunham Massey, Marble, Outstanding, Pomona Island, Seven Brothers and Stubborn Mule alone all within 5 miles of the premises.
Each brewery responded in different ways to the lockdown. For instance, Dunham Massey stopped brewing and after selling the last of their bottles decided to shut down operations entirely. The brewers at Outstanding supply us with our house lager, stout and occasional exclusive cask brews but have never packaged their beer so I’ve not been able to give them any business. Ed at Stubborn Mule is doing his own delivery service. Marble and Pomona are both operating with skeleton crews but they are still managing to brew and package fresh beers. Seven Brothers have been steaming ahead after their recent re-brand and have been turning out a new packaged beer or two every week.
As new stock arrives I decide whether to sell it as part of the aforementioned generic assortments, or to create a dedicated brewery showcase. The likes of Dry & Bitter, Marble, Pomona Island and Track have all warranted the showcase treatment. It’s mainly brand recognition that drives this decision.
I continue to buy from some of my usual distributors, although a few have ceased trading because of the lockdown and all the others are struggling with fewer staff members and less stock.
I have been bringing in beer from further afield as well direct from the breweries, but very few are delivering direct anymore and are relying on courier services which have proven to be patchy at best. On numerous occasions I’ve received notifications about deliveries that never materialise. If I’m lucky, I can collect these myself from the depot. If I’m unlucky, I may not even see a tracking number, or the goods are damaged.
Customers collecting from outside the door to the premises are often surprised by the amount of stock that I have in, but as the lockdown continues it is clear that pubs will be the last businesses to open again so I think it prudent to have stock to see me through. Many breweries have stopped brewing or have had their brewing schedules interrupted and I anticipate a beer drought is on the way.
With deliveries it’s important to be paid in advance. Instead of taking payments over the phone and doing ‘cardholder not present’ transactions on the card machine (which is an option), I rely on the iZettle app. I start each sale with the customer’s name and indicate the amount they owe which generates a unique transaction link ready for the customer to pay securely through their phone or online. I send most links by automatic SMS using the customer’s mobile number, but I can also drop it into a WhatsApp message, send to one of my Facebook Messenger contacts or copy the link to my laptop to paste it into an email or Facebook page manager message.
The folks at iZettle process the payments and send the funds (less their 1.75% fee) by bank transfer. Settlement takes longer than I’m used to with my usual card machine: for instance, proceeds from Tuesday’s sales don’t arrive until Friday. No processing takes place over the weekend so proceeds from Friday and Saturday (my busiest days) do not arrive until the following Wednesday. I’ve yet to understand in today’s digital age why the world of finance operates only on ‘business days’, as if computers have to be shut down out of respect for the Sabbath or something.
I do still have my usual card machine for the occasions when a customer pays by card upon collection. Now and again I make a sale from passersby out having their daily walk. It means not forgetting to do a Z report when I close for the evening.
Come 4pm and I will have picked all the orders I’m delivering for the day so I spend an hour checking that all payments have come in, chasing the ones that haven’t, loading up the car and mapping out my route. There are usually one or two collections waiting for the end of the day. Once these have been collected I sometimes need to make a delivery or two around the immediate vicinity, which I’ll do on foot.
At 5pm it’s time for the half-open shutters to come fully down. After locking up I nip around town for about an hour or so with my deliveries. As the days have gone by and the deliveries have mounted up I have become quite familiar with most of the local streets and shortcuts. If all else fails I could always become a taxi driver.
It’s a long day, but that’s nothing new in this trade. I enjoy being out of the house, being on my feet, keeping busy – and having a quick spy on where my customers live!
In my next post I’ll share some ideas for operating a pub under the social distancing rules which are likely to be with us for the rest of 2020. Until then…where can I get a beer??