In 2013, Matt Blaum had a detailed plan when he and his brother, Mike, were getting ready to open their self-named craft distillery in northwestern Illinois. An important part of that plan was a live website for the distillery before it actually opened, which would give the business some early publicity and local name recognition.
Matt quickly learned the most important lesson about creating, maintaining, and dealing with a website. “You always have to do more than you thought you needed to,” he says. “We started with just a place-keeper website, because that’s all we thought we needed. We should have had the whole website up and running before we opened. That would have done a better job of telling people about us, about our product, and about what we were doing. The place-keeper wasn’t necessarily bad, we just could have done it better.”
That’s the mantra for anyone working with websites for small and medium-sized producers, whether they’re wineries, craft breweries, or craft distilleries. It doesn’t matter if your site includes something as complicated as e-commerce (or even selling your alcohol over the Internet) or is just a way for customers to communicate with your business. Something will always have to be done that you didn’t expect, and even a website that works can be improved.
“Perspective is all,” says Kermit Woodall, a web designer in Richmond, Va., who’s built alcohol-producer sites and specializes in working with smaller companies. “You can’t let the project overwhelm you, whether it’s designing a new site or redesigning your current one. Do what you can and do what you want. Don’t worry about what someone else does or what you think you should do.”
A craft alcohol website has one thing in common with a Big Booze website: The law doesn’t care what size your business is. The same regulations and restrictions apply. That means if you can sell your product from your website (which wineries can do in most states), you need to take a different approach than a producer that can’t sell its product, which is almost every other alcohol producer.
If it’s legal to sell your product from your site and you decide to do so, then you won’t be able to use website template services like Wix and Squarespace. Rather, you’ll need a content management system (CMS) that either supports alcohol specific e-commerce tools, such as WineDirect or Truvi Commerce, or that can have alcohol specific e-commerce tools integrated in, such as WordPress with Commerce7 plugged in.
If all you want to do is sell t-shirts, beer mugs, and the like, then something like Wix might work. “The problem with proprietary options such as Wix and Squarespace is that they don’t allow for the complexity you need if you’re going to sell alcohol,” says Michael Wangbickler, president of Balzac Communications, a marketing consultancy in Napa, Calif. “The details of selling alcohol require special e-commerce platforms, and the only way you can use them effectively is with something like WordPress.”
Commerce7 General Manager Zach Kamphuis explains, “You need an e-commerce partner that can handle the complexities of the alcohol industry, such as label registration, destination state sales tax, and legal age drinking limits, to name a few. These complexities often can’t be handled inside common platforms like WooCommerce and Shopify.” These solutions are available from companies including Commerce7, Truvi Commerce, Wine Direct, and VinSuite, which all have those capabilities built in. For example, they will reject an order from a state where you can’t ship wine. In addition, most of the systems include or integrate with your POS (point of sale) and wine club database, as well as with UPS and FedEx. They charge monthly fees, often with a sliding scale based on sales volume.
“I can’t tell you how much easier that makes it for us,” says Rebecca Conley, who oversees the website for Brennan Vineyards in Texas (she uses Wine Direct). “It’s simpler and cleaner than the way we had to manage it before, and it’s easier for our customers to use.”
What’s the difference between open source and proprietary platforms? Open source or CMS means the content is usually free to use. In addition, it isn’t protected by copyright, so you can change it any way you want to fit your needs. WordPress is one example of an open source platform.
A proprietary platform, on the other hand, isn’t free in either sense. It often requires a fee to use and the system is closed, meaning you can’t change the code to suit your needs. Examples here are Wix and Squarespace. Because the stylistic choices are more limited (you choose from among a number of established templates), they typically don’t require a designer and you can set the site up yourself and save money. WordPress, on the other hand, almost always requires a designer and is much more complex to configure. That’s because WordPress is a set of tools used to build a website.
Think of it as the wood and brick used to build a house. Whereas a WordPress house can be built any way you want, proprietary platforms (such as Wix and Squarespace) are like model homes: You can rearrange parts of the house, but you have to work within the model you’ve chosen.
The Blaum brothers used Wix to build their site. “The interface was easy to work with, a Wix designer doesn’t cost a ton of money and, since it’s illegal for us to sell alcohol off the website, we didn’t have to worry about that,” says Matt Blaum.
So how much should a website cost? It depends on where you’re located and what needs to be done, as well as whether you’re building a new site or redesigning an existing one. But there are general guidelines. Proprietary sites like Wix charge a monthly fee that depends on the services you use and can cost as much as $500 per year. This includes hosting through the service.
WordPress and Drupal are free to use, but you’ll likely need a designer or someone familiar with coding to set up your site. You’ll also have to arrange hosting—that is, where your website is stored digitally. This can run into thousands of dollars per year depending on how much traffic you get and the services you need.
Wangbickler’s best estimate: A brochure site, with nothing more than basic e-commerce (and not selling alcohol), could cost anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 to get up and running. That could include the cost of a designer and extras such as adding video to the site. A recent Brennan Vineyards redesign that included adding video to the site, says Conley, cost around $3,000. If you want to sell alcohol, add another $2,500 to the design cost, in addition to a specialized e-commerce add-on. These services, which automatically update as the laws change, sometimes have a setup charge, plus monthly fees, often with a sliding scale based on sales volume.
“You pay for what you get,” says Richard Darbey, who oversees the website for Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio. His estimate: About $3,000, not including basic e-commerce and with the caveat that, “You’re going to have growing pains. Just understand that going in.”
Make It User Friendly
A best-practices website, be it new or a redesign, the experts says, should include the following:
- Start with the basics: phone number, hours of operation, and product descriptions (even if you can’t sell them online). “Make sure this information is easy to find,” says web designer Kermit Woodall. “These are often buried on sites, but they’re some of the most common things people want to know.”
- Don’t let design overwhelm readability. Most of your customers will not be web savants, so the site needs to be attractive but easy to navigate.
- Contact information should be specific for customers, trade, and media. A general mailbox or a web form is very “last decade.”
- Do you use a menu? Then make sure your customers can read and browse it on the website. Don’t use a PDF and assume that’s enough.
Does it work?
The designers, marketers, and website managers interviewed for this story all agree a well-designed website draws traffic and boosts sales. Brennan’s visitors increased more than 200 percent after a recent redesign, which brought upticks in sales and wine club memberships.
Conversely, they say, it’s also amazing—even in the second decade of the 21st century—how many websites aren’t well designed. “That’s the biggest mistake people make,” says Great Lakes Brewing’s Communications Supervisor Marissa DeSantis. “[Producers sometimes] just don’t understand that this is how people find us these days.”