For Wine Stores, Coronavirus Has Brought a ‘Fire Hose’ of Customers

Photo: Mario Guti/Getty Images

The rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic in New York has already greatly impacted small businesses the city. Restaurants and bars are only permitted to fulfill delivery and takeout orders. However, the looming prospect of a complete shutdown has been great for certain businesses, like the neighborhood liquor store … at least in the short term. The storefront in my building, Little Mo Wine in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, has been busy for the past week, sustaining a level of business that proprietor Mark Schwartz compared to New Year’s Eve every day. I checked in with Mark this afternoon to see how things were going.

What’s business been like for the past week or so?
Things started to get crazy last Thursday, so we got very wiped out by Saturday. I’d sort of run out of everything I’d had. You definitely get to figure out what your dogs are — what really doesn’t move. But people in these types of situations, and I include holidays in that, will sort of just buy anything. It was a great opportunity and at the same time it’s not lost on me that even in my industry, half of it is shut down — all the restaurants and bars. My reps from my vendors are basically told not to visit their accounts, so they’re not making any money. For the distributors, half of their runs have been cut because of the restaurants being out of business, so at some point there will be a tipping point of people willing to sell to stores like mine that can’t make it financially worthwhile, or for the union truck drivers, the union is going to decide they don’t want people to be working. So I feel like at any moment the whole thing can collapse.

I’m super-fortunate that I can be here. The first three days, I was like, “This is good. If I have to shut down, at least I made an extra week’s worth of business.” If I have to shut down, I can pay my staff, I can actually give them some money. I’m just kind of taking it from there.

In terms of inventory, what’s been the first to go? Do people just head to the cheap section like I do?
The value wines have been the hardest to keep stock on, for sure. All the regular stuff that we sell all the time goes. One lady who always buys a case, she bought two cases. Folks who come in all the time and buy three bottles of prosecco, they bought a case. People are just looking to stockpile. And then there’s the box wine. We sell a very good grade of box wine, it’s not junky, but people are like, “That’s where I’m going!” So they buy four boxes, which is equivalent to 16 bottles of wine. I have not too many end-of-the-world people who are like, “I’m just gonna buy the Veuve Cliquot now. I’m gonna drink Champagne at lunch every day.” That hasn’t happened. Yet.

A lot of my whiskey has been okay. A fair amount of bourbon’s been going, just because people are home. The other thing is people are home during the day, so I have all this daytime traffic that we really didn’t have before. So even if they’re not panic-buying, there’s people with time on their hands. And then the bars got closed, so then there was an extra wave of that. Whatever new regulation is announced, there will be another wave of shopping that I’m just trying to be ready for.

Have you had a huge uptick in online orders?
Yes. We were super-fortunate to have a very robust delivery program going into this. So the only thing I had to do was get everybody ready for the capacity of it. There are plenty of shops and restaurants that don’t deliver at all, and they had to build it from nothing. We kept what we normally do, we just had to do it more.

It hasn’t gotten overloaded yet?
People are pretty patient. I was definitely delivering things hours after they were ordered, which on a regular Saturday might not fly, but people were pretty patient about it. We started to regulate the amount of traffic in the shop, so we encouraged people to do pickup. Pickups are almost as labor-intensive as delivery. It creates a lot of exhaustion on the sales floor to get orders and fulfill them. I’m trying to systematize but it’s been like bathing with a fire hose.

Have you heard any delivery horror stories?
Not yet. I haven’t really gotten too much feedback. Me, personally? I’m relying a lot on couriers and Postmates people, which I’ve had in the past, but I’m really leaning on these guys now. It almost creates this icky feeling of a subsistence class of people which I would hope people would pay more attention to. I’m really thinking a lot about what are the changes that come after this. I would hope that all these people that are putting themselves in harm’s way to bring you food and bring you wine will not be taken for granted. It seems like there’s such a big reorganization after something like this.

On the distributor level, has anything changed?
None of the sales people are allowed to go out. So the hard work I do of drinking wine with people all day, that’s out of the question right now. A lot of them are commission only, some of them are salary plus commission. But we’re like exceedingly small fish. The Danny Meyer Group [the company that runs a number of franchises, most notably Shake Shack] closing? I can’t even wrap my head around how much money that costs everybody.

Given that a lot of wine is international, has supply been restricted at all?
Not yet because we haven’t moved to a shelter procedure of nobody doing any jobs. People are still shipping, people are still receiving. If that stops — I don’t always agree with the governor, but that’s a terrifying prospect for a city of 10 million people, when grocery stores aren’t getting their deliveries.

Has that inspired you to stockpile?
I haven’t been able to be strategic. This is the most quiet period I’ve had in about a week. I don’t know, there’s going to be winners and there’s going to be losers. There’s people who look at a situation like this, and they know exactly what they need to do to come out ahead. I’m not that guy. I’m just trying to hold my shit together.

Have you been surprised by anything?
I guess the depth of panic-buying is kind of surprising. I would never think that I would have enough demand to sustain the numbers that we’re doing.

By the end of the conversation, one woman waiting to pay stood with three bottles of alcohol in her arms. She nodded knowingly when I asked if she was stocking up for the foreseeable future. Another woman cradled five bottles (total: $175.26), and a man prevented from taking the subway to the Trader Joe’s wine store in Union Square inquired how a box of wine he was holding compared to theirs. “I’ve never had a lunch crowd before,” Schwartz said.

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Coronavirus Panic Has People Hoarding Wine