There are exceptions - everyone has stories about a hapless sales assistant who, when asked for amarone, proffers a bottle of Di saronno - but product knowledge among off-licence staff is pretty good. Or, at least, better than it used to be.
It's largely thanks to the efforts of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which has shaken the dust off tired old learning material which had somehow made boning up on alcoholic drinks about as stimulating as
calculus. Under Ian Harris, the WSET has taken huge strides and is rightly applauded for promoting a greater understanding of spirits and wines within the trade - not to mention among consumers and overseas students.
But there is a gap, and it was identified by research carried out earlier this year by Wine Intelligence in a poll of some 2,500 WSET students and tutors, and 123 leading trade figures. The message that came back was that, however much a person knows about wine, they may not necessarily know how to sell it. Sales training, respondents said, ought to be included somewhere in a WSET curriculum.
Perhaps great sales people are born, not made; perhaps there is not much you could learn in a classroom that you wouldn't eventually pick up on the shop floor. But the WSET has already proved that a little sales training can go a long way. Back in 2004, it teamed up with Percy Fox in a trial at 30 Unwins branches. Staff at 10 stores were given product training, staff at another 10 received both product and sales training. The remainder acted as a control group.
In the three months following the training, sales in stores in which staff
had been through the standard WSET course grew by 6%, while those in shops where staff had also had sales training rose
Harris is now working on a pilot scheme - to be tested with a retail partner and also at the WSET's London offices - which will eventually help it create an add-on sales module for its courses.
"We're not going to teach people how to negotiate at national accounts level - this is all about the sharp end of the trade," he says. "We're speaking to various people in the industry to see exactly what is needed and which will work in tandem with our lower-level courses.
"We know from the 2004 trial that sales training drives trade and encourages trading up."
How does Harris rate the general standard of salesmanship in the off-trade? "It's definitely getting better," he says, citing Majestic as a retailer which is setting the standards. "Their whole ethos is about engaging their customer
and talking about wine, and everyone walks out having spent more than they intended to
and being perfectly happy about it. They're thinking 'thanks for the advice - I'm looking forward to enjoying this wine'."
Harris envisages the sales training as being "short and sharp", involving some role-play exercises. Advice will be given on some retailing fundamentals such as making eye contact and dealing with awkward questions,
work with more confidence.
The WSET initiative comes at a time when training is on the drinks retailing agenda like never before. Newcomers to the trade are required to undergo a course to qualify for a premises licence . Staff can also expect to attend numerous sessions on social responsibility and avoiding under-age sales (either because their employer is diligent enough to provide these, or because the police or licensing authority have "suggested" this might be a good idea) . And ambitious employees will already be thinking about working their way up the WSET ladder, perhaps aiming for a Diploma or even considering the ultimate step, the Master of Wine.
The trade evidently believes there is room
in this crowded schedule for helping its people earn more money from the products they sell. The onus is now on the WSET to deliver a course which is credible, practical and, above all, effective.
Top tips for sustainable improvements
What's the secret to customer satisfaction? A uthor and retail guru Richard Hammond
says there isn't one.
In his Smart Retail book, Hammond warns against putting too much faith in one-off initiatives, which he compares to crash dieting: there may be short-term gain, but sooner or later people revert to their normal behaviour and all the good work is undone.
Instead, he argues, retailers should "build from the ground up" to achieve permanent improvements in the way they meet the needs of their customers - and to their bottom line.
He highlights the virtuous circle which is created when staff buy into a series of positive changes. Happier staff mean
a better customer experience . That leads to a better interaction with staff, which means staff are happier . So what kind of changes is Hammond talking about? Some of his tips include:
Aim for employee satisfaction:
"The most effective way to improve service quality is to improve the satisfaction of your team ... a reward
and bonus programme based around customer satisfaction scores can be
Keep it simple: "Make promotions easy to understand ... use plain language in your advertising and communications"
All shopping is about discovery: "Surprise
customers with recommendations and formats in which the brilliant and great rise to the top"
Encourage feedback: "If you haven't got a customer complaint process that's easy for customers to use, create one"
Smile and be nice: "Use the great opportunity you have as a retailer to talk to people, to enjoy their company ... for every mean-spirited or rude customer, you'll work with 100 who are good fun, who love being out and spending money".