This topic is one that is near and dear to our hearts. In the wake of the pandemic, we're seeing many local homebrew stores closing. We ourselves have four homebrew shops in CA and of course, we want to be your online homebrewing supplier. But we also love this homebrewing community we're part of and the local homebrew shop is an integral part of it. That's why we wanted to use our platform to help spread the word; support your LHBS if you have one and like what they're doing!
With that said, Dylan wrote some great tips below on opening a homebrew store and we wanted to share them with you. Also check out this video we recently published on our YouTube channel about supporting your local homebrew store and what you can find there you can't anywhere else.
Small retail businesses have become a crime of passion. In the face of drastic changes to the brick-and-mortar landscape, you have to want to participate in this arena more than your good sense should allow. Even so, those clever few among us will find a way to remain relevant in the age of the digital marketplace.
The makings of a successful homebrew supply store begin with the owner, but they alone can’t change the conditions on the ground. This is why it’s important to evaluate both yourself and your marketplace well before a plan begins to take shape. Is your knowledge adequate to steer a fledgling business through its trials and tribulations? Will your operating costs and customer demographics allow for profitability? These are among the first questions you should ask yourself, with countless others to follow. But where does the real path begin?
1. Identify Your Advantages
Let’s get one thing out of the way: You will not compete with major online retailers on either price or selection. It would be downright foolish to try, as you simply won’t have the space, volume or purchasing power to match them. So, what’s a small-timer like yourself to do? Primarily, you should focus on the in-person experience. Consider what it is that you’ll provide for brewers that an online retailer can’t. Without exception, you’ll need to bring your A-game when it comes to brewing expertise. The local homebrew shop should be a bastion for brewers in need of concise and direct answers to their questions. In-person dialogue can provide tremendous value, whether by saving today’s batch or by preventing the perpetual mistakes which plague new and experienced brewers alike (wait… so don’t boil wort with the lid on?). Such revelations, key to the trajectory of successful homebrewers, come at a shockingly brisk pace when brewers harness the power of the expert behind the counter. This is the foundation of the local shop, but so much more can be built on it. Having an appropriate space for education, group brews, demonstrations, tastings and other gatherings is an important consideration in your hunt for the right location. Whether you’re selling craft beer or hydroponics in parallel to malt and hops, or espousing the virtues of fermented foods, it’s what sets you apart from the competition that ensures your survival.
2. Evaluate the Marketplace
Homebrewing remains a niche hobby which doesn’t enjoy the benefits of a particularly diverse clientele. Because of this, it’s quite apparent that a sizeable population of brewing age adults is needed to support a local homebrew retailer. You’ll need hundreds of regular customers, along with a steady inflow of new ones, to maintain a stable trajectory. The data would suggest that your most likely shopper is a middle-aged male homeowner with an evolved interest in beer. They probably have a technical education and the often-associated discretionary time and income to support their newfound brewing endeavors. Does your marketplace provide enough individuals fitting this description, or can you somehow appeal to a broader demographic? You’ll have to be aware of local competitors, as well. Even the most lackluster of rival homebrew shops can siphon enough business to render your projections moot. Take off your rose-colored glasses, write a detailed business plan and use every tool at your disposal to prove your concept.
3. Evaluate Yourself
There are some obvious benefits to owning a homebrew store, especially if you’re passionate about the subject. You get to spend your days engaging with people who are genuinely excited to be advancing their brewing hobby, some of them finding lifelong enjoyment in the pursuit of better beer. But even on your worst days, you’ll need to match that enthusiasm and answer the same yeast or malt question you’ve heard a thousand times before. You’ll need to give the same pitch about choosing extract or all-grain methods to new customers, day in and day out. If you’re not genuine in your approach, customers will see right through you. Cranky and reclusive store owners aren’t exactly held in high esteem, and repeat business is your whole world.
This is a numbers business, like most others. Any entrepreneur needs general business acumen, but it's also worth looking at your organizational and cleaning skills as core to the operation. If your store is difficult to navigate, or if there’s a film of malt dust on all your shiny stainless kettles, people will not take you seriously. Stock rotation, freshness and cleanliness are not aspects you can let slide.
4. The X-Factor: Customer Loyalty
While the sentiment of “Support Your LHBS” is a noble one, its true meaning is often lost. To some, it means paying the occasional visit to their local shop when they didn’t plan far enough ahead to order something online, buying liquid yeast or bulky bottles they’d prefer not to ship at all, or running in to replace the hydrometer they broke midway through a brew day. These are not your customers. They are likely to take your time and give little in return. Your true patrons are those who realize the most self-serving thing they can do is support you at all cost, knowing what is lost if you were to fold. It’s up to you to cultivate your following and reward those who value your hard work. Homebrew clubs, beer appreciation groups, bottle shops and local breweries can be great partners in nurturing a cooperative and supportive brewing culture. You’ll need all of them in your corner.
So, if these words of caution don’t dissuade you, there is a great need for the togetherness a local homebrew shop can foster. The confluence of ideas and power of collaboration are what has propelled brewing advancements for millennia, and we’ve got a long way yet to go.