The Customer Is Not Always Right, and 5 Other Lessons Learned After a Decade in the Wine Business

July 14, 2015
This October, my wine, beer and spirits retail business turns 10, which has me thinking about the entrepreneurial lessons I've learned over the years. Some are what you might call "happy mistakes;" others definitely presented themselves the hard way. Sometimes funny, sometimes painful, always instructional.

What do I know now that I wish I knew then? What matters -- and what's not worth stressing over? Here are some insights into running a successful business I wish someone had shared with me a decade ago.

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1. Don't Be Afraid to Fire a Customer

We bend over backwards to make our customers happy day in and day out. The large majority of the feedback we receive is constructive and invaluable. There is, however, a small subset of people who try to take advantage of your good will.

We had one customer threaten to write a bad review if we didn't allow him to spend the afternoon shopping while parked in one of our three 15-minute parking spots. Another blasted members of my staff when we were not able to deliver a bottle to her home immediately since our van was already out delivering to several other jobs.

In these rare instances, I have to make a choice for the greater good and be protective of my team, even if it means losing the occasional (unreasonable) customer.

Which leads me to...

2. You Are Only as Good as Your Team

While I'm still in charge of more than I should be (can you say control freak?), I've learned to rely tremendously on the good work of the 10 or so people I employ.

The secret to my team's success? Bringing employees in on the ground floor and providing clear and consistent training. Most of my managers started out as cashiers or in the stock room, so they really understand the operations end of the business.

This doesn't mean it's gotten any easier to demote or let someone go who is not working out. I take very seriously the idea that I'm helping keep a roof over someone's head. But continuing with a poor performer is not just bad for morale, it's bad for business.

3. Accept Change, It's Going to Come

When the economy came to a halt in 2008, I had to seriously adjust my inventory. In a couple of months, the $40-$60/bottle market largely went away, so I brought in 150 new wines under $25. What I didn't anticipate is that people would be drinking a lot more wine, just less expensive wine. We continued to grow, but differently than I expected.

Another good example: We are surrounded by dozens of BYOB restaurants, which has made our location a great asset. After years of customers asking us where they could grab a glass of wine before dinner, we decided to fill the void ourselves by opening Amanti Vinoteca. Now, folks can buy a bottle from us and enjoy it while sitting and people-watching outside our shop.

I also set out to be a wine store offering limited beer and spirits as a convenience. But when the popularity of craft beer began to soar about five years ago, we did our homework and grew our inventory to accommodate the growing demand. Now beer is our fourth biggest seller after Italian, French and Domestic wines.

4. Customers Will Not Always Get You


Since day one, I've struggled with customers not immediately understanding who we are and what we are trying to do. We feature artisanal, largely handcrafted wines that taste great but may come from little-known producers (without ratings). Some people won't be happy if they can't get Cupcake or Yellow Tail. Amanti Vino is not for them.

For others, there's the impression that just because our décor is hip and fun, we must be expensive and stuffy. But the opposite is true. Yes, we have beautiful back-lit displays for our more than 900 wines from around the world. Our prices, however, are right down the middle of the fairway, with most bottles selling between $15 and $30.

I never wanted anyone to feel intimidated walking into my shop. So our store mascot, Rufus -- my 12-year-old gentle, yellow Labrador retriever -- comes to work with me on most Saturdays and helps put customers at ease. By now, lots of people stop in just to see Rufus, many bringing gifts of bones and treats! Now does that sound stuffy to you?

5. Technology Will Change the Way You Do Business

When I first opened my doors, I would never have predicted that 50 percent of my customers would be accessing our website on their mobile devices.

In time for our 10th anniversary, we completely overhauled the site to meet the growing and changing demands of our online and mobile customers. We've also embraced social media as a way to engage our base and communicate everything from events, dinners and tastings to simply getting the word out that the store is closed after a bad snowstorm.

Don't stress if your high-tech visions do not come to fruition overnight. We are finally doing something super cool that we wanted to do forever, and that's emailing tasting notes to customers directly from the register. It may not sound like much, but it's hugely important to our wine-buying customers and whatever we can do to make ourselves invaluable... well, that's the name of the game.

6. Be a Good Neighbor

You must support the causes that are important to your community.

Whether it's a request to take part in a school fundraiser or the business district's Girls' Night Out, my answer is always "yes." While the rewards of my involvement are not always immediately evident, I'm in it for the long haul. I'm here to be a good neighbor.

To mark our 10th anniversary, I am releasing Amanti Vino's first ever private-label wines. I wanted to involve everyone possible as a thank you for their support, so we held a contest for artists of all ages to create labels (featuring Rufus!). The outpouring of great submissions from the community proved to me that I made the right choice. Every decision is not going to be about the bottom line.

What's next? Who knows? But I'm ready and eager to find out!

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