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Breweries, wineries, or distilleries in Pennsylvania that depend on the taproom or tasting room for the bulk of their revenue have suffered significant losses as a result of COVID. While today the state is operating in the green phase of reopening, these businesses are still functioning at reduced capacity, and many are looking ahead to another shutdown as we move into the fall and winter months.

For those who rely on in-person sales, planning for a time when you can’t greet customers face to face again is a daunting task, but it’s one that’s essential if your business is going to stick around beyond the summer. How will your business survive if you have to close your doors again? Here are six things you should be doing right now to prepare.

  1. Make your website amazing.

Some brewers, winemakers, and distillers have already successfully navigated the challenges of COVID closures by redirecting their customers to an online experience during the shutdown. Those that had sophisticated websites with strong brand stories and e-commerce capabilities were in a perfect position to pivot to online sales with curbside pickup or to-the-door delivery, and their loyal customers followed even after the shutdown. Why? Because the online experience was a natural and consistent extension of the attitudes and atmosphere of the real thing.

Just look at Kintnersville craft beer brewer Great Barn Brewery. Their farm-to-glass brand story is carried over from the taproom to the homepage. Online ordering is easy, and the menu includes images and descriptions of each of their brews with order pickup available on site. For Great Barn, on-site pickup may even have an advantage over to-the-door delivery, as some customers might want an excuse to get out of the house and glimpse the establishment they enjoy. Lancaster distillery Thistle Finch is another strong example of how to successfully transfer a brand story into an online experience. Using video and photography, the site successfully captures the rustic elegance and charm of old Lancaster and includes detailed descriptions and images of its homemade spirits.

The takeaway here is that when customers can’t enjoy an evening tasting at the vineyard or a flight at the bar, you have to make the alternative as close to the real experience as possible. To do that, you need a strong brand story and a thoughtful online customer experience to create that authentic feeling. Consistently delivering on your brand promise and meeting your customers’ expectations of your brand, both in-person and online, builds trust, and with trust comes loyalty.

  1. Use social media to interact.

Social media has been a lifesaver for many businesses, but particularly for the smallest of small. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have helped tiny vineyards, microbrewers, and local distilleries build and maintain a brand following with minimal financial investment. These tools have also proven invaluable when businesses have needed to quickly communicate changes in operating hours, on-site safety protocols, and product and service availability.

Social media can also be used proactively. To recreate live experiences and tell a brand story, wineries, for example, are hosting online tasting parties and similar events via Zoom to educate followers about everything from the winemaking process to flavor profiles. Learning from examples like this, many are rethinking their social events and working out how to promote and deliver these events virtually using social media and other readily available apps.

  1. Add e-comm services.

Since the start of COVID, the demand for online alcohol sales has soared. Within two weeks after the PA Liquor Control Board opened online liquor sales back in April, the state was unable to keep up with demand. This is good news for small wineries, distilleries, and breweries, as it shows consumers are keeping their favorite beverages on the short list of essential purchases, and they are easily making the transition to online sales. If and when another shutdown occurs in the fall, readying your website for online sales is absolutely imperative if you want to continue to participate in supplying this demand.

For a lot of smaller beverage businesses, their only brush with online sales has been glassware, t-shirts, and baseball hats accompanied by an awkward, elementary online shopping experience. If you’re going to make the move to online sales and you want to be successful, you’ll need to fix that fumbling interface and promote your online sales right on the homepage. Even if your business is open for indoor or outdoor sales right now, promoting your online sales option now will help your loyal regulars quickly transition to buying their beverages online if another shutdown occurs.

  1. Make a plan for pickup and delivery.

When making a move to online sales, you’ll need to include a plan for how you’ll put those purchases in the hands of your patrons. A lot of factors need to be considered when making this plan, including your available resources and the needs of your customers. If your demographic skews older, to-the-door delivery may make more sense, as this group may be less likely to venture out. If your demographic skews younger and more mobile, on-site or curbside pickup may make more sense and save you a lot of logistical hassle and a lot of money. Ultimately, you will need to find the sweet spot between what you can afford to do and what your customers will need in order to feel comfortable buying from you.

  1. Consider your containers.

Wineries and distilleries typically have bottling already figured out, but brewers who’ve depended solely on serving draughts at the bar may need to invest in canning equipment for 4-packs, 6-packs, and crowlers or source bottle suppliers for growlers to make their products portable. The more options your customers have for how they can purchase your beverages, the better, as this will also give them different price points to fit into what may likely be a shrinking booze budget. Packaging will be important, too. With curbside pickup, for example, you’ll be handing off bottles or cans to someone in a car. Consider including a carrier or box to prevent those bottles from rolling off the seat and onto the floor on the car ride home. This is part of the brand experience, too.

  1. Take advantage of available word of mouth.

If you are open for business right now and you’re planning to add online sales, make sure you share that information with the customers who are currently visiting your establishment. Just like promoting your online sales option on your homepage helps prepare customers for a transition to online sales, so does sharing that message with them while they’re sitting at your bar. Educating your customers about this option while they’re sitting in your establishment will also strengthen their recall because they will be actively engaged in the brand story that your establishment tells, and they will connect your message to that experience.

Life jacket or sailboat?

There are no quick, once-and-done responses to this situation. For the foreseeable future, COVID is going to continue to force small businesses to adapt and readapt to changing circumstances. The best way to prepare is to prepare. If you have to close your doors again, you need to have a plan. Now is the time to put on your life jacket and invest your energy into building a robust website and supporting it with engaging social media so you’re ready if the tide turns. Even if your doors never have to close again, what was supposed to be a life jacket turns into sailboat and creates new opportunity to increase revenue.

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