Restrictions and guidelines in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic change almost every day, but the one thing that remains a constant is the message to stay home as much as possible. 

And with people staying in, many companies have turned to technology to help connect with customers and the community through the internet. 

Three-time ALIA Retailer of the Year, the Oak Barrel, have been utilising the power of the online world before the pandemic, and have been in an excellent position to leverage this further to benefit their business in these tough times. 

Scott Fitzsimons, the Whisky and Spirits Educator at the Oak Barrel, said their digital footprint is something they’ve always used to showcase their points of difference and tell their story. 

“It’s to get in front of people and to get eyeballs. When you see the Oak Barrel Bottle Store written on a bit of paper or in a listing, that doesn’t really tell the story of what the Oak Barrel is. We’re quite a unique bottle store in terms of what we stock, the experience we hope to give, the sheer size of the store and those sorts of things,” Fitzsimons told National Liquor News. 

“Being able to explain that a little better and frame the conversation to show our culture and what the Oak Barrel is about is really, really important… it helps differentiate us a little bit.”

The Oak Barrel’s Sydney CBD location has meant their foot traffic has all but disappeared and so they’ve not seen the same boost of in-store customers reported by other retailers. This makes their online offering crucial to maintaining the business throughout the worst of the pandemic and its associated restrictions and guidelines. 

Across the Oak Barrel’s social media and website, you’ll find lots of interesting content. They have videos of online tastings, recipes and discussions, product information and events. Virtual events have been housed there since before COVID-19 was in China let alone Australia, as they explored different ways to engage with the community. 

With this background, Fitzsimons recommends that any retailer moving into the online sphere now should think to more of a longer term timeline than reacting purely to the pandemic, and work on creating a useful business tool for any situation. 

“Times of disruption are always great for innovation. If you potentially hadn’t played with this space before, doing online tastings or finding it hard to get in front of people when they’re staying at home, put steps in place so you can do this when this all passes. Not a bandaid, make it a proper fix and something that can add to the business,” Fitzsimons said. 

Even though the Oak Barrel already had some great online tools in place pre-pandemic, they’ve thought about how to further ramp things up. As Fitzsimons explains, it’s not just for the business though, it’s also to provide a space where the trade and consumers can connect and come together virtually, after these physical spaces have been taken away. Some examples of how they’ve done this so far have been the Friday drinks live hangout they hosted last week, and the live whisky roundtable they held last night. 

Speaking about the virtual social events, Fitzsimons explained that he had been catching up with friends and family via Zoom, but realised he wouldn’t necessarily talk whisky with them. However, he knew there was a community out there that would be keen to have those conversations. 

“I’m not trying to force this down anyone’s throats, but the option is there for them. There’s obviously catastrophic and devastating financial and economic impacts with everything that’s going on, particularly for our friends in the hospitality industry, so I think there needs to be an element of just taking care of each other and thinking about mental health,” Fitzsimons said. 

“If you don’t have those people around that want to talk nerdy whisky knowledge with you, well, here’s a chance. And you may know us, you may have met us or you might not, but come and have a chat and hopefully we can have a few laughs and a few smiles.”

None of the Oak Barrel’s virtual events are monetised for people to join, for them it is more about building and maintaining a community. But alongside that, they do facilitate online purchases like offering sample packs for people to follow along at home with tastings, as well as all the usual products you can buy in store. 

The things that the Oak Barrel are doing through these incredibly tough times are extensions of their usual offering, innovated into new formats. That’s an extremely valuable approach to take right now, and it’s one they want to further improve on through this connection to the community that they are fostering. 

“What we would really like is to get some interaction from the consumers, and be able to ask theym, hey, what do you want to see?… It’s certainly a battle at the moment but the more stuff we can do and the more feedback we get will be good,” Fitzsimons said. 

If you’re a retailer and would like to share how you’re adapting to get through these challenging times, I would love to hear from you. Please reach out to Brydie Allen on

Brydie Allen

Brydie Allen is the Editor of National Liquor News. She has been with Food and Beverage Media since 2019, when she joined the company as a journalist across National Liquor News, Bars & Clubs, The...

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