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Chain Store Sales – “Back Door” Distribution Still Relies on the 3-Tier System

The 3-Tier system has been explained at length in my books and online by others so I won’t spend more time here with the same thing. But it remains a hard concept to grasp, especially when you’re new to the US alcohol business and perhaps think there are exceptions, such as when an importer is selling to chains.

Take this example. The importer has contacted a national buyer for Sprouts, Lidl, Whole Foods or one of any number of large chains. Even though an importer is headquartered in Ohio, e.g., and the chain is a retail operation with the buying office in Atlanta, your presentation can be made to the chain buyer, who can then decide to place the wines in stores across 40 states. However, most importantly, the importer is not directly selling to the buyer, because the importer is not allowed to break the 3-Tier barrier of (1st tier) importer selling directly to (3rd tier) retailer.

When a chain store has locations in different states, you would think that an exception could be made to allow a purchase to be generated and distributed from a central location. It sounds reasonable, but the 3-Tier system has remained firmly in place since prohibition through vigorous lobbying efforts by influential state wholesalers, effectively preventing any crossover from wholesale to retail. Therefore, as the importer you have the option of:

    1. Using your existing distribution network to distribute to the chain’s stores, if you have distributors in each state in which the stores are located and where the buyer wishes to place your product
    2. Finding and appointing a new distributor in each state, which may be possible if the potential sales are large enough and therefore appealing to the new distributor
    3. Using the chain’s own distributor network relationship to satisfy the sales and 3-tier requirements.

      The last option is the most common. The retail chain has presumably done this numerous times and already worked out the payment and logistical details with the distributors to make it a smooth order and delivery process. Plus, the chain is definitely realizing a pricing advantage from this relationship by negotiating a vastly reduced markup by the distributor. The retail chain may mark up the wines to be on a par with other retailers around the country, which allows them a greater profit margin. Or they may sell the wines at a considerable discount and still make a reasonable profit. Discuss the chain’s objective with them beforehand, so you can decide if this dovetails with your national pricing strategy.

      To recap and expand on this concept:

      • All sales from an importer must be made individually to a licensed distributor in each state
      • No sales shipments can be made from an importer in CA direct to a retailer in any other state
      • If a chain is involved with stores in multiple states, buying may be a centralized decision, but each one orders product independently
      • Product is picked up by a state distributor’s trucker at the importer’s warehouse and taken to the wholesaler’s warehouse in their respective states
      • Some states have a workaround that is called a “bump the dock” state; in other words, the shipment can arrive at the dock of the wholesaler and not actually be unloaded, but receive paperwork showing that it arrived at the wholesaler location before going on to the retailer
      • Product must be delivered to retailer(s) of each individual state by the wholesaler
      • Depending upon the state laws (and they all vary) a retailer may have more than one store and the wine is delivered to a central store or depot for delivery to other stores from a centralized location. Again, for emphasis, this applies only to that one state and not multiple state locations.

        I have been asked often which price list an importer should use when quoting to a retail chain. That’s a very fair question. After all, the sale is actually to the distributor which will, by the way, be the one to supply you with a purchase order and they’ll be the ones paying for the wine. But up to that point the importer may not have even met the distributor. All proposals and wine selection are conducted with the retailer. Please do not lose sight of the 3-tier system. Make no mistake that this sale is made from importer to appointed, approved, licensed state wholesaler.

        As for all the other factors that may come into play in this transaction such as discounts, volume, promotions, market assistance, or market visits to educate sales staff, ongoing purchases, number of states involved and so on, this is going to depend on the chain. And if you get to the point where a chain is interested, they will advise you on their process and expectations. It is then up to you as to whether this is doable.

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