I really love talking about food and beer. It comes with the territory as a freelance writer who focuses on those topics. For a recent Eater Toronto story, I got to do an interview that was intriguing enough that it went on for a couple hours and I had to chop quite a bit of it to make it down to a reasonable length. Josh Bird (a.k.a The Beer Phantom) who recently left the LCBO was the answering half of the Q & A.
While he worked there, Josh was a customer service rep and the “beer guy” at the LCBO in the Royal Bank Plaza. He’s proud of how much he was able to improve the beer selection at that location and had several useful seeming tips for shaking the best bottles loose from the government-owned liquor monopoly.
Have a look at the original piece on Eater Toronto and then head back here for the director’s cut.
How does one get a job as an LCBO customer service rep?
Honestly, I just put my resume online. I didn’t hear back for four months so I just assumed, you know, no interest or whatever. That I get a phone call at the end of August “do you want to come in and do an interview?”
It works for me because I was in my last year of university music, so to be able to work there was great. They weren’t really concerned that I wasn’t available every single day, all the time.
How does an LCBO know what customers want?
Basically, just by looking at sales trends. See what sells, what doesn’t. Usually, it’s fairly frequent rotation. So, if something isn’t selling you swap it out for something else and you get something else that does sell.
So, is it predictive – do you look back at June of last year to see what will sell well in June of this year?
Generally they have the sales trends for the past year; how you’re doing compared to the last year in certain products. There’s a tool on the intranet that you can see every beer and its sales trends in every store in the downtown district. It’s organized by SKU and sales rank.
How do you quantify the size of your store?
Generally it’s the amount of space and SKUs you have. We were a B store, which means we were below a certain sales point and space point and SKUs point. Summerhill is a AAA store, so they carry everything. I don’t know the exact details of the store categorization. I know sometimes they move them up and down based on sales. If you are a B store and you hit a point way over any other B store they’ll classify you as an A store, which I think gets you a couple extra SKUs.
Were you ever wrong? What happens if you have extra beer?
We had this cabinet in between the two beer fridges. That was where I always put the brand new stuff. So, I’d move it from there into the regular shelving. And leave it there and it would slowly trickle away. On a couple rare occasions I’d have something left over from craft and they’d be like “Okay, we’ll move this over to another store for you. You have one case left over, we’ll move it to Queens Quay for you.”
That happened so, so infrequently because people loved the craft beer in our store once they found out [it was there]. Once it became widely known that we were going to get cool craft beers, then we’d run out of things. And often, if we had 10 bottles of Samichlaus left people would come and say “I hear you have 10 bottles of Samichlaus left, can I have them?” We were such a convenient location, right on transit.
Let’s say I read the LCBO is getting a beer – do you have any hints to help people who want to get it first? How does the online inventory system work?
When [I] received a shipment, [I] scan[ned] every case it comes in and it would go into the system the following day. How much you had at the end of day is what it displays for the next day.
Honestly, the best way is to ask the employees. I may not know when it’s coming in, but I can give a rough estimate. The seasonals are harder, admittedly, because a lot of times I wasn’t told when they are coming. They just show up because they’re forced and I don’t order them in. But with the stuff I ordered in I can see that the order was transmitted on Monday and that means it should come in either Thursday or Saturday with one of those orders.
What is the planogram?
Well, the planogram is updated on a yearly basis. For me in the beer section it didn’t really have too much of an effect, because it didn’t really force any products on me because there was so much rotation anyway. It just told me to rearrange them. I’d rearrange them and that would last all of two weeks until I’d run out of five beers and bring in five new ones.
Did you take a photo? Or did somebody come around and check?
I think they just took our word for it. Maybe somebody came around to check. The planogram is to make things look nice – not to say it has to be like this. If something didn’t look nice, I’d deviate from the planogram.
The complaint from some people I’ve heard about the planogram is that it says macro beer in the fridge and craft beer on the edges – is that fair?
Yes and no. We still did have a lot of craft beer in the fridge on the planogram. By the end of my time we had almost an entire fridge of craft beer.
What about height out of the fridge? Did it matter what you put it at eye level? Did you ever experiment with that?
Normally, the stuff that sold really well or had really bold, eye-catching labels I put lower down because they were going to catch your attention just based on their boldness or the fact that you wanted it because it was a huge selling beer.
Did you have an SKU budget?
Yeah, you’re told how many SKUs you’re supposed to have for your store and they want you to stay within 10%, either over or under. I can’t remember exactly what the number was but I think it was about 90 for us.
The whole point of the system is to keep the store as efficient as possible. You don’t want to have anything sitting in the store’s warehouse. You never want to have more than a week’s worth of what you need in your store’s warehouse.
Did you worry about UV light and beer being light-struck?
I did. The warehouse is lit so that it’s safe, but there isn’t really a huge amount of UV light in there. And if something is in the warehouse, pretty much everything is in a box. It’s not going to be touched by light. The kind I worried about is under the fluorescent lights in the fridge cases. I’d never put new stuff in the front, first of all because then you got warm stuff in the front of the fridge and second of all because then you never rotate to the back of the fridge. I wanted to make sure everything was being rotated and people were getting fresh beer.
Did anyone ever bring back a beer and say this beer was skunked I want a refund?
I never really had it with beer. I had it with corked wine.
And there’s not really any argument on that, right?
No, no, if it’s corked its corked. Every once in a while you do have someone bring back a bottle that’s got maybe a quarter of a glass in it and they say it’s corked. It’s annoying, but you go through the process. If a certain name pops up in the system frequently enough I think they do start investigating that. Or the next time you might say “we’ll have to send the bottle to quality control, because it seems like something is wrong with your bottles, and you’ll get your refund after they determine the cause in a month’s time.”
Were there staff tastings?
Usually the staff tasting is led by a product rep who comes in and they want their product in your store. You taste a little bit and you spit it out. The manager has the ultimate decision, but usually if everyone’s like “that’s really really good, we should carry that” then you know it’s going to sell well because 15 staff members think this is a great product and they’re going to recommend it to customers because they enjoy it themselves.
What was the worst day of the year for your location? Did you ever work New Year’s Eve?
I did a couple years. New Year’s Eve was surprisingly not as bad as the last open day right before Christmas. The first year I was working there December 23 fell on a Friday night. That was the single busiest day I worked there. We got to a point where we had to have the security guards manning the door with a one-in-one-out policy.
What’s the deal with the Beer Phantom? Did you post on bar towel as the Beer Phantom?
The beer phantom was sort of a side project I picked up right near the end. I had applied to Niagara’s brewmaster’s program and it was just something that I wanted to do. I’ve had friends, family, and random acquaintances at bar asking all these questions.