Next year will look quite different for the team at Beer Cartel, with the retailer moving their business entirely online. New Year’s Eve 2022 will be the final day of trading at the store Richard Kelsey and Geoff Huens opened a decade ago in Sydney’s North Shore, and sees them go full circle after initially launching with as an online retailer.
And while they've practical reasons for making the move, the team says it's one that in part reflects the changes to the retail landscape and consumer behaviour post-COVID, acknowledging it's unlikely they'd have transitioned back to online-only pre-pandemic.
"At that stage, we didn't have the same online demand for Beer Cartel and [sibling business] Brewquets," Richard told The Crafty Pint. "Back then, the store was reducing each year proportionally to the business, but was still a reasonable amount.
"What we saw with COVID really grew the business quite significantly and that's how we got to the point where we were running out of room and needed a solution , which led us to the new site."
He has witnessed consumers "embrace" the change to online and doesn't believe they'll be returning to previous practices.
"They've seen that it's a pretty convenient solution, and that the online shopping experience isn't that different now. The pandemic has played a huge role in that movement.
"We see it with brewers too, and that shift to making their own online store part of their offering now. If you went back two or three years, nobody was doing it. Now it's very much front and centre."
As they approach the day they'll bid farewell to the Artarmon store that was a stopping on many an early craft beer adopter's pilgrimage, he says: "We’ve got a lot of memories and a lot of hours spent in the store. The main thing is we're extremely grateful for everyone that’s visited us over the years.”
With their lease up for renewal in Artarmon, the decision was also driven by the fact they'd secured a new warehouse in nearby St Leonards. The new space provides plenty of room to continue to grow after enjoying some bumper years in online retail; and it allows them to bring Brewquets and their sizeable advent calendar operation under one roof with Beer Cartel.
“It’s about four or five times the size of the Beer Cartel warehouse on its own and has a lot more capacity for us to grow," Richard says.
“So, the timing was right to bring everything back together and create a new home for the business.”
However, while they’re saying goodbye to a physical store for now, Richard says they’re keeping the door open to the possibility of another one in the future.
“We're definitely not writing it off, but it is a whole other kind to think about,” he says.
“If it worked, we would have considered it [in the new warehouse but] there was no way from the actual lease or the licensing.”
If they did return to in-person retail, they’d want to create craft beer destination: the soon-to-close Beer Cartel store has always being hampered by a lack of street frontage.
“Our current store never grew as big as what it could have done because the location we're in very much held us back,” Richard says.
“It’s always been a bit of a secret, hidden bottleshop. If you're in the know, you know, but even to this day, we’ve still had people coming in saying, ‘I’ve never known you were here.’”
For now, Richard says their focus is on trying to replicate the in-store experience online and ensuring the website isn’t just a place for buying craft beer but also for discovering it.
“[The store has been a] great place to go and to have a chat, and to journey down the rabbit hole of craft beer with having someone to guide you," he says.
“What we're really interested in doing is going, ‘OK, how do we actually replicate that with the online site?’ so we're not just a whole lot of beers that are on our website but something more than that.”
Before opening their store in 2011, they spent a couple of years operating as an online-only business; since then, Richard and Geoff have been part of many industry developments we now take for granted. Initially, they ranged wine in Artarmon, but those bottles disappeared as word spread across Sydney about what they were doing and they switched their focus solely to craft beer. Beer bottles have largely disappeared from the shop too, with Richard estimating cans now make up more than 80 percent of their stock.
But perhaps the biggest change of all has been the beer buyer.
“People come in knowing exactly what they want before they even get to the store,” he says. “Whereas before it was really about guiding them.
“The knowledge level has definitely changed. There are people that come in now who are more evolved in terms of breweries but also of flavour profiles and what flavours are.”
That's not the only way customers have changed either. As awareness of and interest in craft beer has grown, the consumer market hasn't just expanded in number but also geographically into areas without craft beer retailers, as well as in terms of what people are eager to sample.
"People aren't just looking for any craft beer, but something that's taking them further down the craft beer rabbit hole," Richard says. "Most bottleshops will be able to get early stage craft like James Squire and Little Creatures and Balter; it's when people want somethiig thats a bit different from that: 'OK, I like these beers, but what else is out there?'."
He adds that the change isn't limited to craft beer either, but reflected throughout retail.
"Online is only going to grow over the next five / ten years," he says. "I remember going to an online conference earlier in the year and one of the things they were talking about was how young and early online retail really is. In most cases, it's only the past five years that people have been buying online.
"What we know now will be completely different in five / ten years. It's very similar to craft beer, where the amount of changes we've seen in the past ten years have been huge."