The Architects of the Aisle: Beginning a Career in Alcohol Sales

Apr. 4, 2018


By Kyle Trompeter, Content Manager, Breakthru Beverage Group


Have you ever walked down the alcohol aisle at a store, gazed at all the options and thought to yourself, “Wow, I can’t decide what to get—everything looks great!”


You’re welcome.


I, of course, have absolutely nothing to do with this, for I, am but a scribe.


However, there are people at our company that go into your favorite store every day and make our products look utterly wonderful on the shelf. I’m not just talking about how organized the bottles of New Amsterdam Vodka appear in the aisle, or how a 750ml of Jack Daniel’s simply shines on a display at the end of an aisle.  


Whether you know it or not, YOU—the prospective buyer of the alcohol brands that we sell—are influenced by where and when our brands appear in a store.


What you’re seeing is a well-thought out diagram of how our brands are going to best sell in a given business, and it is made possible by our Merchandisers and our Sales Representatives, two key sales roles at our company.


These associates, essential to our continued path to be the best beverage distributor in the industry, are the Architects of the Aisle.


Once again, I am honored to become immersed with a key department at Breakthru. A few months ago, I spent a day with a truck driver and learned that these those folks are truly the indispensable front-line ambassadors between us and our customers (bars, liquor stores, grocery stores, restaurants and so on).  


Similarly, the sales team at Breakthru is stocked with talented, creative people that grind every day so that consumers don’t have to work very hard to decide what they want to drink.


The Merchandiser


When you begin a career at Breakthru Beverage—regardless of department—it’s good to get to know which brands we sell. This is an especially critical component for the Merchandiser.


“That’s the biggest thing when you first start,” said Brad, a Merchandiser with Breakthru Illinois. “Once you master the inventory list, you begin to see the aisles through our lens.”


What that means is, if a Merchandiser walks down the alcohol aisle and sees empty areas on the shelf and in displays, that’s an opportunity.


During my day with Brad, we stopped at nearly a dozen different accounts (grocery stores), and at every one we had to either restock a shelf with products that had sold out, or rearranged shelves and displays to make our products ready to be picked. If Alamos Malbec had sold out, we had to go to the storage room in the back and grab another case to put on the shelf.


I recall how those extra cases get into the storage space at an account…


Moving on.


If the cases aren’t at-the-ready in the back, that’s when the Merchandiser must take note of which brands need to be replenished, and this is where Brad will work with his future self, the Sales Representative.


“One of the most important parts of my job is always being on the same page with the Sales Rep in the territory I’m covering,” Brad said. “If there is an account that I see needs a refresh on a certain brand, it’s up to me to communicate that to the sales rep so they can put in an order for that account.”


As a Merchandiser, you might not have a set route or territory you’ll be covering. It’s important to embrace the jack-of-all-trades quality while in this role, because one day you might find yourself working in a specific part of the city, and the next you may need to assist a Sales Rep out in the suburbs.


And each section of a market is different when it comes to where certain brands sell better than others—and it’s up to the Merchandiser to master that map.


“My route is always changing, and I like that,” Brad said. “The variety makes the job especially interesting, especially when you’re getting started. It’s important to understand the entire market.”


Mastering the Merchandiser role is a great springboard to becoming a Sales Representative, which is a sales position with additional levels of responsibility, creativity and most importantly, owning crucial relationships on behalf of Breakthru.


The Sales Representative


“I’m a problem-solver,” said Brian, a Sales Representative with Breakthru Illinois. “And not just for our needs, but for the needs of our customers.”


Therein lies the biggest responsibility of the Sales Representative—building, maintaining and growing relationships with the customers.


“I spent most of that first year as a Merchandiser asking a lot of questions, because I was eager to learn as much as I could about the industry,” Brian said. “Now, I’m focused on putting our brands in places where they will win.”


Setting a winning scene isn’t as easy as just asking a buyer (at an account) to place our products in a prime location. A buyer has countless things to consider when they lay out the floor and shelves of their business, and Brian’s needs aren’t always at the top of their to-do list—nor should they be. In the case of a grocery store or general store, they have a very large inventory list to manage, not just the adult beverages.


However, Brian marches into his accounts daily, ready to help his customers best sell our (and their) products.


Allow me to set the scene.


Brian and I walk into a major grocery store chain, and the first thing we do is take a walk around the entire store—not directly to the alcohol section.




Well, as I learned, we were scouting out opportunities to pair our products with specific foods with a variety of display options. Brian tells me if there is real estate next to some fine meats and cheeses, it would make sense to a consumer to want to pair that with a fine wine, and that person might not walk to the other end of the store to the alcohol section to make the pairing.


After the scouting trip, we arrive at the alcohol aisle we were there to assess, and Brian went to work scanning the shelves like how Brad had shown me how to do earlier. That is always step one when we get to this section—scanning for opportunities. However, when Brad (Merchandiser) sees opportunities, he lets Brian (Sales Rep) know about them, and Brian then works with the customer to fulfill the opportunity.


Here, Brian sees a potential play for a key brand—although what he’s looking at is completely lost on me, for I, am no architect of the aisle.


Brian is surveying an area at the end of an aisle that is occupied by a variety of different wine and spirits displays, and he is rearranging the displays in his head to make room for one more that he hopes to see out on the floor.


“What are you thinking?” I ask, pretending to sound like I’m on the same wavelength as him.


He sees that one brand that has two separate displays about 10 feet apart from one another. This brand (one of Breakthru’s brands) gets two displays because each one features different size bottles—750ml bottles and 1.75L bottles.


However, if he were to consolidate those displays into one, we’d have space for the brand he is looking to get in front of consumers—New Amsterdam Vodka.


After a few minutes of rebuilding the section in his mind, the store buyer approaches Brian.


“I’ve got an idea for you.”


Now, I’m not in sales. “The pitch” is not something I really do, nor would be comfortable doing. I’m cozy right here behind my keyboard, thank you.


In fact, I’m nervous just watching this conversation.


Brian, however, has no such social issues, which, of course, is good news for Brian.


He, like many of the other strong sales leaders and associates in our company, has a moxie that obviously is tailor-made for this role. He’s making his pitch with complete confidence, but the tone of his voice has a dash of flexibility. This game, the one between the buyer and Brian, is one of give and take.


Earlier in the day, Brian tells me that he works hard to earn the trust of his customers, and to do that, you can’t always just ask for big favors.


“It’s the little things that eventually add up to big things,” Brian said.


This potential catch here—the would-be New Amsterdam Vodka display—isn’t necessarily a whale, but it’s still a really big fish. He told me about a whale, but this one would not be as big as the Barefoot display he reeled in a few months previous. Hey, grand slams aren’t hit every at-bat.


Brian and the buyer are now surveying the area at the end of the aisle together, and slowly but surely, the buyer is seeing the display through Brian’s eyes. Brian sensed this, and went all in.


“I will literally come here tomorrow and rearrange this entire thing for you.”


A deal was done, and it wasn’t an easy one. I can tell you firsthand, at the beginning of the pitch, the buyer clearly liked the way that his aisle was arranged. And that’s a key thing to remember, it is his aisle. We are playing in his sandbox, and he will set his store the way he sees fit.


But Brian knows the game, and he knows that if he can work with a buyer to better his or her own real estate, that’s how Brian, the buyer and Breakthru, will sell more product.


“Trust,” Brian said. “That’s the most important part of my role. I know when to push, and when to not push, and my customers recognize and appreciate that.”




What I’ve just told you about these two key sales roles here at Breakthru is merely a small taste of what these positions actually accomplish on a daily basis.


My biggest takeaway from my days spent with Brian and Brad is that there is an essential human element to this industry that consumers aren’t aware of when they are perusing the aisles at the store.


Everything you see in the alcohol section has been placed where it is for a reason, and there are people behind those placements. It’s no accident that a massive wine display is right next to your favorite meats and cheeses.


Brian and Brad are the reason that wine is there. They want you, the consumer, to have a seamlessly delicious shopping experience. So next time you see an inviting pinot next to the parmesan cheese—enjoy.


You’re welcome. 

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