Craft Distribution Opportunities: Thoughts from Louisville, Kentucky

Last week I attended the first ever Craft Beverage Distribution Conference in Louisville, KY. I was honored to deliver the opening keynote on the past, present and future of the middle tier. Based on the awesome questions I received after, I think the content resonated with conference attendees. I was a little nervous too!

As always, my favorite part of the conference was meeting passionate Makers from all over the country. I spoke with brewers, distillers and winery owners about their distribution challenges. Many are using LibDib. Other attendees were small and large retailers who are innovating as well. There’s a wave of support for small producers and the air was thick with excitement. I left inspired and uplifted that the small guys are finally beginning to have their moment with new distribution options.

Another piece of information I took away from the conference was that craft distribution involves every aspect of a business: it isn’t just about who your distributor is. Sessions covered data analytics, working with the 4th tier, expanding beyond local markets, success in control states, and expanding internationally. The Makers I spoke with left the conference feeling empowered with a tool-kit that they can use to grow their business.

For those Makers who couldn’t make it this year, here are some quick tips and themes I gleaned during those three days:

  • Tell your story - Retailers (and ultimately consumers) want to know the story behind your brand. Make sure that story comes through in all aspects of your business. Panelist, Quinton Jay of Bacchus WIne & Spirits in Millbrae, California, said it well, “There is something special about the person who actually makes the product.” Retailers want to know that story.
  • You must know your home market before expanding - Panelist after panelist enforced growth only after you’ve mastered your home market. Create a local groundswell of support...and then grow.
  • Grow smart - Don’t expand distribution haphazardly. Research markets, understand where your brand fits in each market and grow one market at a time. Be sure your product inventory can support the growth. Be smart.
  • Work the market - Large and small retailers want to know the person behind the brand, not the distributor. No matter what your production level is. So, figure out where you want to grow and devote time to visit those markets. Or, use LibDib’s digital tools to create a relationship online. Foster relationships and follow through.
  • Collaborate with independent retailers - Small retailers’ message was strong. If they believe in your product they will support you. Meet those independent retailers that matter. Get to know their store and their business. Work together to develop in-store visits and other promotions that help you both out.
  • Consumers are doing their research so leverage them - This is where digital comes in. In my keynote I spoke a bit about consumer digital pull and that theme continued in most panels. Create a strategy that drives consumer pull in specific markets. Geo-targeting, social media, or targeting via online advertising. We know this can get expensive but there are entry level tools that don’t cost much but can deliver a large return. Spend a bit of time on doing at least one piece of this and you’ll grow.
  • Avoid brokers who charge huge up-front fees to sell your product - Anyone who asks for a huge chunk of money up front should be approached with caution. After all, you are a small producer with a limited budget. Be smart with you choose to do business with. Do your homework (ask for references, google the person), ask distributors what their experience is working with that person. And don’t pay a lot of money up front. Focus on a commission-based structure.

This new conference is exactly what our craft market needs. Craft distribution is rapidly changing. The good news is that there are many like-minded people in the industry who are shepherds of this change. We look forward to seeing where the market is at next year’s conference and who joins in the revolution.

Cheers!