Digitizing the beer wall

Why The Beer Store's new digital inventory displays signal improvements to its overall retail experience.

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The Beer Store has made a major step in its efforts to modernize its retail experience, partnering with Cineplex Digital Media to bring a self-serve, digital database of its inventory to its retail locations.

Seen as a replacement for the traditional, static “beer wall” customers may be used to, the “Pricing Information Centres” are kiosks containing 21-inch touch-screen tablets that allow users to search through and see which beer, of the 650 brands carried across The Beer Store’s retail network, is available at a given location. They can search by category, by products on sale or by brands that are new to a location.

Over 145 Beer Store locations have already adopted the new kiosks, which began rolling out on Feb. 29, and are expected to be in 367 of its 450 stores by mid-June.

The Beer Store and Cineplex previously worked together to provide other forms of digital signage in 150 locations. Bill Walker, spokesperson for The Beer Store, says it will be rolling out further digital and mobile innovations in the near future, part of a $100-million investment over three years to improve its retail experience.

In addition to its ongoing focus on moving more into the digital space, Walker says a combination of customer feedback and conversations with staff led to the focus on the “beer wall” as a place that was in particular need of improvement.

“We sell almost 650 brands now,” he says. “That’s a huge amount of choice for a customer, and when you look at a traditional, static list, that’s not a very good user experience. It was important to transition to digital in a way that would allow customers to explore and have new experiences with beer.”

IMG_9823The beer retail market in Ontario has been evolving as the province changes how beer sales and distribution are conducted to make the system more open. One of the more newsworthy elements of these changes has been the testing of sales at grocery stores, giving The Beer Store a new potential competitor that can rival its scale right out of the gate. Improving the customer experience, Walker says, is about providing the kinds of capabilities consumers expect in a digital era, which is all the more important in a setting where they might be overwhelmed by choice.

“There’s been a huge growth in the number of beer brands, and that number of choices is part of the reason we’re looking to augment the customer experience,” Walker says. “Customers want to explore and have new experiences with beer, but what we’re dealing with in the retail space as a whole is consumers who want to shop when they want, how they want and on a platform they want. We’ve looked at those factors, and there’s things we’ve done and are working on that are meant to bring those options to our customers.”

These changes have also been attempting to give smaller, local brewers a better chance to compete against larger, conglomerate-owned brands. The Beer Store adopted a new business model on Jan. 1 that opened ownership to Ontario-based brewers that met certain criteria. Walker says that ownership now includes 25 different brewers, who have also been given the opportunity to list two of their products at five Beer Store locations closest to their brewery at no cost. That number goes up to seven for small brewers that produce less than 10,000 hectolitres of beer annually.

Many craft beer brands rely on eye-catching package design to attract new customers, and while the shelf space available to craft beer brands in the Beer Store varies by location, many of them have had to compete side-by-side on the beer wall. Walker says the Beer Store’s new store format allows for a more tactile experience with a greater variety of brands. When that’s not possible, the kiosks allow craft brands to show off the same things they would at any other location.