Need a really great reason to gear up for Costco? Birenbaum has a long history of working in the wine business, from importing/wholesale (restaurants, hotels) to retail wine shops and Napa tasting rooms (Ehlers among them). But there's no place quite like Costco to see the diversity of American wine buyers in action, from bulk buyers of $6 blends to enthusiasts looking for that special occasion Pinot. Birenbaum is exactly the sort of knowledgeable, no-nonsense guy you want to talk to about your dinner pairing expectations, without an ounce of price-point ego. This is Costco, after all.
Get more on the Costco wine buying experience, from a particularly memorable $18,000 sale to the one thing Birenbaum wants wine buyers to consider ("What I want to talk about for sure is [customer] headaches").
Squid Ink: The obvious question. How did you end up at Costco?
Syd Birenbaum: Well, I was consulting in media technology [for] small little start-ups that would find content for entertainment companies. Basically they were looking for studio connections. But in 2009, the environment in digital content was starting to solidify away from independent companies to major companies, and my small clients were starting to waver. Around then, I was actually in the Costco where I work now and happened to be talking to the general manager about something [unrelated]. I asked him if he'd ever thought about having someone to help customers in the wine department. I saw people standing around the wine looking clueless. He said, "Actually, yes, I am looking for someone for the holidays to do just that." And with that I started working just a few hours, weekends mainly, while I was still doing consulting. As that digital side started to fade even more, I jumped on more hours. And here I am 3 ½ years later, working four days a week.
SI: You must see an incredibly diverse range of customers in terms of both wine knowledge and price point at Costco. How do you deal with that?
SB: I have a filtering mechanism to see where someone wants to go. First, you have to assess who you are talking to, get the basics.
SI: What constitutes the wine "basics" today in your retail environment?
SB: OK, so I start with a series of questions. First, are you a red or white wine drinker? Sweet or dry? And how much do you want to spend?
SI: So if I walk into Costco, you know nothing about me, and say "Red, dry, $12"?
SB: Then are you interested in Cabernet, or a blend? Domestic, imported, full bodied or medium bodied?
SI: A lot of questions!
SB: Yes, that's the other side. If I give them too many choices, they get confused. Ultimately, I often make a choice for them.
SI: Is the wine novice your typical customer?
SB: There are a surprising number of customers here who will hold up bottle of red wine and ask me, "Is this red or white wine?"
SI: But it's florescent lighting in there.
SB: You'd be surprised. But I've got the other side, too, which is part of the reason I like what I do. Here's an example on the opposite end. I've had the head of [an academic department] at USC, a professor who only buys first growth Bordeaux, as a customer. But I've convinced him to try a handful of other wines. There's quite a range of people I deal with in terms of wine experience.
The other thing that's good about working at Costco is there is actually very little talk about price. That's pretty unique in a wine retail setting. When I point to something and say it's a good deal at $75, they know they are in a place with deals. Price becomes a mitigated factor.
SI: Interesting. As is your mention of first growth Bordeaux. At Costco?
SB: We haven't in years, but when I first started we had a huge range in wine prices. I had bottles as low as $5 and first growth Bordeaux for $500 to $600 a bottle.
SI: Really? We must have missed them all these years.
SB: Oh yes. Here's a story on that. When I started here in November 2009, I was only working a couple days a week. It was the holidays, and I was still trying to get oriented. From across the department, I see a woman loading a box of wine, and she's putting $40 bottles of Chardonnay in her cart. I took notice. Two hours later, she had pulled out her black Amex and had spent $18,000 on wine. It was mind-boggling to me. She was following a list someone had written for her, I presumed her husband. I figured it was a mistake to spend so much/buy those bottles, and she would be back the next day returning much of it. They must have been a hit, as she came back the next day and spent another $3,000. I had the wine stock back to sell to her then. Now, I don't have that type of wine [price] diversity.