Widen the net to catch the customer

05 October, 2007

are you offering online 'podcasks' yet, asks emma eversham

The drinks world is breaking new frontiers in the race for cyberspace profits. Type any drink brand name into an internet search engine and chances are the results will ­either give you a link to its own ­website or one to the company who owns it.

Drinks retailers too are increasingly using technology to market their businesses, with many hosting websites listing details about their company and some also selling their products online.

But technology is constantly evolving and the internet is continuing to grow in popularity with latest figures from Ofcom showing that 50 per cent of UK adults now have broadband installed at home.

Many internet ­users now expect the web to be more than just a reference or shopping tool. According to Ofcom, half of UK broadband users have used the internet to download audio or video clips online and people are even using the web to socialise, proven by the increasing popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

With the web becoming such a large part of our everyday lives, the question has to be: is the drinks industry innovative enough when it comes to using it as a business and marketing tool?

Charlie Bennett, ecommerce manager at Berry Bros & Rudd, a company constantly adding new features to its own website, thinks too many drinks retailers see their website simply as an extension of their shop and are not ­using it to its full potential.

He said: "Other companies don't seem that interested in building an actual general wine experience online. My view is that they tend to see the web as just a shopping portal and don't develop it any more."

Recent research carried out by ­Berry Bros has revealed that 80 per cent of its customers have viewed their website at some point, which is a pretty high figure when it is not primarily an internet business.

Berry Bros podcasks (as opposed to podcasts) - a series of interviews with wine makers and producers - were introduced to the company's website bbr.com earlier this year . They have proved such a success that the company has since set up the Virtual Wine School and blogs written by Masters of Wine.

Both the podcasks and lessons from the Virtual Wine School can be downloaded and they can be listened to or watch ed on MP3 players at a time that suits the customer.

These kind of features ­require some investment and retailers may not see immediate benefits to sales but, as Bennett points out, it is a valuable way of keeping customers interested in the company. He said: "I could put a text interview between a producer and a sales director up on the site, but it's not going to grab people's attention as much as a podcask.

"People are more audio receptive and there is also the fact that you can listen to them on the bus or the train.

"We are not looking to it as a sales tool, we are looking to it as a way to ­enhance the whole fine wine experience. Of course, it also brings people back to the website and that means you've got their attention."

Noel Young Wines also recently tested the boundaries with technology. The Cambridge wine merchant teamed up with interactive wine tasting site ­Virtual Wine in September to hold a special rugby themed wine tasting. Customers bought six selected wines from the shop or from Virtual Wine before the event and then logged into the site on a particular day and were able to taste wines with professionals from the comfort of their own home.

"Initially the term 'virtual' scared a few people and there was a bit of confusion about the way it was marketed, but we are going to hold another one in February, because it is a way of getting people onto the website," said the company's Daniel Young.

Although Young is keen to enhance the company's website by adding features such as blogs and forums, while also continuing to promote innovative ideas like virtual wine tastings, he said the extra work and cost involved in "jazzing up" a website can put off time-strapped drinks retailers .

"It can increase your workload and what you might get out of it in the long term, I don't know. You have to put a reasonable amount of time in to make it work, so you need to think of ways of updating it that don't take too long," he said.

Young said there are simple but ­effective ways in which drinks ­retailers can use technology to boost their business.

One way is to have a constantly updated "tried and tested" section where employees post tasting notes for customers to read. For shops where tastings happen on a daily

or weekly ­basis, this requires very little extra work. Another way is to reach customers by simply e-mailing them.

"Still the most basic but effective part of the web is e-mail ," says Young. "If you send out an e-mail to your customer database, with ­details of ready to buy, or a deal you've got in store, it will either prompt them to buy from you or they've got the option of deleting it. It doesn't cost you anything and it takes next to no time. It's just a way of refreshing people's memories that you're there."

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