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May 25, 2006
Case Study

Inspiration -- How a Neighborhood Retailer Created a Newsletter Customers Adore

SUMMARY: Memorial Day Weekend used to be one of the slowest periods of the year for Washington, DC's gourmet retailer Pearson's Wine & Spirits. But this year, Proprietor Steve Silver confidently says it will be a weekend only second to the Christmas season. Why? His twice-weekly (!) email newsletter -- sent to 10,000 local consumers -- brings in foot traffic other retailers only dream of. If you're looking for inspiration for your email newsletter, check out our new Case Study.

"We were at one time one of the biggest Washington Post paper advertisers in the market," notes Steve Silver, Proprietor Pearson's Wine & Spirits -- a brick-and-mortar store with one location that does not sell online or ship anywhere.

"Sometime in 1999 someone suggested I start collecting emails. I had no idea anything like that would work. My kids convinced me to buy a computer. We put a sign-up sheet on a clipboard near the register asking for email addresses. I eventually got about 50 addresses, so I sent out my first email."

"We wound up selling about 50 cases of wine from the first email, 'so I said I think we've got something here.'" 

The problem, of course, was how does a busy retail store proprietor create email newsletter content that local customers will find fascinating on an ongoing basis? Once the novelty of email wears off, how do you keep the romance going between you and the customer?

And, how often should you send issues anyway? 


Over the next year, Silver began to set the five rules by which is email newsletter program would be run:

Rule #1. Strictly limit sales announcements

As a gourmet wine seller, Silver had never relied on sales announcements in advertising to bring in foot traffic except for a few key times of year. He didn't want to be caught in that trap for email content. 

Instead, he decided to limit emailed sales announcements to a handful of times per year -- mainly the traditionally slowest sales times in his niche such as Memorial Day weekend.

Rule #2. Write as a "reporter" not a "marketer"

Aside from the extremely infrequent sales announcements, Silver says, "I see myself as a reporter. I'm always looking for angles for stories." 

Each issue of the newsletter would focus on one story -- generally about four paragraphs long. Stories ranged from (see link below for sample issues):

o The "back story" of a particular brand

o Little-known vintages or years that were unexpectedly good

o Recommended wines for particular meals (such as what goes best with spare ribs)

o Invitations to join wine tastings and in-store classes

How does a busy proprietor come up with so many good stories? "I talk to all the wine supplier sales people. When they come in the store I don't let them tell me how much it costs, I ask them for a good story angle. Then I spend my time researching and writing it."

Example, one winery owner was a former TV actor who portrayed Davy Crockett on TV in the 1950s and '60s. With help from the supplier rep, Silver landed an exclusive interview. "I spent about half an hour on the phone, he told me highlights of his acting career and how he got interested in wine."


Rule #3. Keep the subject line ultra short

"I try to cut it down to two-three words. I want people to see it and decide whether to read it. Otherwise, I'm afraid it's going to run off the page." 

Rule #4. Include highly relevant images

Every issue includes a photo of the wine, food, location or celebrity being profiled. Silver used to rely on stock and supplier photos, but recently invested in a digital camera. 

Since then, he's tried to include more photos of store staff, including himself wearing a hat purchased during a recent wine-buying tour of France. (No, it's not a beret. Link to photo below.)

Rule #5. Test frequency

At first Silver sent once a week, on Thursday afternoons when he figured customers would be considering what wines to buy for the weekend. But then he heard from a wine store owner in St. Louis that twice weekly worked better. 

So, Silver tested doubling frequency, adding a Monday edition, despite fears that it might upset people or just be too much work. 


"We don't do a cent worth of print advertising anymore. I stopped cold turkey," says Silver triumphantly. 

"I look at our sales figures -- it *all* comes from email. I don't market any other way because people walk in the door all day long with print-outs of the newsletters in their hand, asking for the product in the email. There's no mistaking where the business comes from."

Silver cleans and maintains his list constantly and has had a fairly consistent 10,000 opt-in subscribership for the past three years. (Worth noting: Washington, DC, has unusually transient white-collar population, so holding an email list at this level is quite an achievement for a local store.)

The newsletters get a consistent 30% open rate -- but interestingly it can take up to two weeks or more to achieve.  The 24-hour open rate is generally only at 18-20%.

This shows recipients value the content highly and probably are sorting it into a special folder or email pile to read at their leisure. The fact that they don't forget to return and open issues, especially at a twice-weekly frequency, is a high compliment to the content.

The extra frequency upset a handful of complainers. But Silver decided to keep the effort up because it meant so much to sales volumes. Plus, he's discovered by asking, "A lot of people don't realize how often it comes. They'll tell me, 'I get your weekly email' or 'Good god you send me email every day.' They come to the store either way."

Aside from direct sales and open rates, Silver has also been tracking the relationship-building aspect of the newsletter program.

"In the days when we were advertising, we really didn't know our customers very well. Now we talk to everyone who comes in and know most everyone's name -- it's like a ‘Cheers’ kind of place when they come into the store. Now we have the greatest group of customers who are loyal to us. It's really cool the way it's worked."    

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples from Pearson’s

Past MarketingSherpa article, "How to Keep Your House List Open Rate Above 50%: Lessons from Winery Email Campaigns"

Constant Contact, the email broadcast vendor Silver uses to send his newsletter

Pearson's Wine & Spirits

See Also:

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