DC Area Indie Bookstores Hanging On. Lessons for Indie Beer?

As Amazon.com and e-books have disrupted bookselling, large format bricks and mortar book retailers like Barnes & Noble have struggled.  Others, like Borders, have gone under.  In a story I heard recently on NPR, WAMU reporter Ally Schweitzer interviewed DC-area neighborhood bookstores who are hanging on despite the pressure from macro retailers. [For more info on the story, follow the link at the end of this blog.]

Their twofold strategy for thriving?

  1. Focus on building local community connections.
  2. Provide a customer experience that outweighs the convenience and lower prices of Amazon.com and electronic formats.

These small indie bookstores choose their locations wisely, and engage their neighbors with an array of events and experiences.  They humanize the book discovery process by making their stores a place of warmth and guided discovery.  They also bring in other non-book items (greeting cards, coffee, art) that not only add to the experience, but also generate additional revenue, often at a higher margin.  They generate a sense of personal connection with their customers and build community among their customers in ways that cannot be matched online.

Sound familiar?

If you’re one of the large, still independent national craft brewers, you’re in a position more like Barnes & Noble.  You’ll claw to maintain shelf space at national retailers and large format stores, and to hold taps on premise, as the macro brewing conglomerates throw seemingly endless resources behind their portfolio of former craft gems.

You can play the independence card, and that will be motivating to some, maybe many.  You can combine forces with other large independents to boost your market leverage.  But frankly, a large contingent of craft volume is consumed by drinkers who like what they drink because of its taste, without much else involved.  They won’t go far out of their way for an independent craft beer when a great tasting “crafty” beer is more readily available.  Your challenge is to continue to make independence important, and keep innovating to reach these drinkers with something they will go out of their way to buy, either because of a better brew or a better story with which to connect.

If you’re smaller and more local, you stand a great chance of creating a unique, emotional experience that connects local drinkers in community in ways no macro brewer, or even large national independent craft brewers, will ever match.  The way you build local pride and connections, the way you connect your story with the stories of those of the community of drinkers around you, simply cannot be replicated except by other local brewers.  You will remain strong as long as you remain special, which probably means small and local.

Are you in between?  Too large to ever become “local” again, but too small to keep yourself on shelf and on tap in competition with the larger independents and “crafty” brewers?  Good luck.  You’re in the toughest spot of all.  Craft a tight, compelling and unique story.  Innovate and connect, both at retail and in the brew house.  Plan to invest even more in marketing and promotion focused on building long-term brand connections (not just short-term volume).  Stick tightly with a compelling message.  It’s your only chance to thrive.  May the force be with you!  [I’ll have a future blog on how to look small and act big – it’s your best chance to thrive.]

Being local alone is not enough.

Once your local market is saturated with small brewers, you will need to be among the best brewers and marketers in town to thrive. If you are, you may be able to grow to some larger footprint and still retain a sense of being “local.”  New Glarus is a great example of a brewery that’s expanded a sense of “local” to a full state.  But your chances of becoming the next major national or even regional independent brewer are really, really slim.  Sorry to rain on your parade.

To replace the 70%+ of US beer that’s currently American light lager macro beer, or even the next big chunk of that volume, there is still a lot of education and trial needed.  A local, friendly and knowledgeable microbrewery making great beer is the optimum venue to engage and delight new craft drinkers.  However, even the best local brewers will still need to market the “but what else?”  Because there will still be a lot of drinkers out their saying, “you’re local, and you have great beer.  And that’s cool.  But what else?”  Your “what else” is up to you.

What else will keep you special?

Cheers!

John Mann (@beermktguy)

John (13)

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And here’s a link to Ally Schweitzer’s story about DC-area Indie Bookstores:

Amazon Was Supposed To Have Crushed Bookstores. So Why Are Indie Bookshops Booming In D.C.?

 

 

 

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