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Shipper Overcomes Hiring Challenges To Keep Spirits Flowing During Pandemic

Jonathan Phelps

A rise in liquor and wine sales across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic has kept workers at the Bow Distribution Center busy.

The 40-foot tall shelves in the 244,000-square-foot warehouse seem endless as workers buzz around in forklifts picking orders — 30% for restaurants and 70% for New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets. All the state’s liquor and wine passes through the building.

DHL, which owns and operates the facility under a contract with the state, moves about 25,000 cases a day. Last week, the building had more than a million cases on premises.

By the end of the year, nearly 5.6 million cases are expected to be shipped from the warehouse.

It takes a lot of people to maintain the flow, according to Patrick Kerns, general manager at DHL Supply Chain Management.

About 120 people work in the warehouse, but Kerns says he could easily hire another 10 to 12 on the spot. That’s on top of the dozen workers hired for full-time and part-time jobs over the past few months.

“The challenges have been staffing,” Kerns said. Several workers are out because of compromised health or because they need to stay home with children.

“That has hit us hard. It has kept somewhat consistent throughout,” he said. “We still have several people who are out who will come back. We held their jobs for them.”

Some workers volunteer to work six days a week for overtime pay. The building is open 24 hours, operating five or six days a week depending on the season.

The staffing challenges come as the state’s liquor and wine sales topped $761.2 million in fiscal 2020 — up $37.5 million or 5.2% from last year, according to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Typically, the growth in any given year is 2.5%.

The state’s net profit was $154.9 million.

More than $226 million in sales is anticipated during October, November and December, according to the commission.

Top products include Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Jack Daniel’s No. 7 Black, Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and Jameson Irish Whiskey. The holidays increase the demand for champagne and higher-end wines.

New Revenue Streams

“It takes a lot to keep the Liquor & Wine Outlets operational and profitable,” said E.J. Powers, spokesman for the commission. “It is such a critical component of overall state revenue.”

The commission wants to make sure the stores are well stocked to remain competitive with those in other states.

Drinking habits have changed during the pandemic, with more people buying higher-end products.

“They are trading up because they have more discretionary income and less places to spend it,” Powers said.

“People are also experimenting with different products … there is a lot more at-home mixology going on.”

Usually, a lot of work at similar distribution centers this time of year is seasonal. Not at DHL.

“We’re already hiring for ’21,” Kerns said. “We want people. We need them. We’ll hire them. We’ll train them.”

No Lulls

Typically, the warehouse has two busy seasons, around July 4 and what is dubbed “OND” — October, November and December. The warehouse hasn’t seen any lulls since the pandemic started.

“This year has been a curveball because it just has been up,” Kerns said. “This has been a year of being hard to track the trends.”

Liquor sales usually dip between Jan. 1 and St. Patrick’s Day.

“We are not expecting that big dip” in 2021, Kerns said. “We think we’ll see the volume drop off from the holidays, but we think January and February will still be busy.”

Restaurant orders, however, have dropped off, Kerns said.

Tom Boucher, CEO of Great New Hampshire Restaurants, said his company’s overall sales are down more than 30%, with a similar decline in alcohol sales.

That’s because takeout orders now account for 20% of sales, he said. Historically that number has been between 5% and 10%.

“You are not doing any alcohol sales on takeout,” said Boucher, whose company operates Copper Door, CJ’s Great West Grill, Cactus Jack’s and T-Bones Great American Eatery.

“Even though you can buy beer and wine, we aren’t selling any because there is no incentive. You can get it much more inexpensive at the grocery store or liquor store.”

Safety Measures

COVID-19 is a big concern for an operation of such scope and necessity. So DHL has taken precautions to keep everyone in the building safe.

The warehouse was shut down after two employees tested positive for COVID, but they didn’t get infected onsite, and the disease did not spread in the building, Kerns said.

Workers have become accustomed to temperature checks, mask-wearing and social distancing.

“I don’t care what anybody says, the masks and social distancing works,” he said.

What’s Next

For the most part, products have been available throughout the pandemic. The warehouse stocks about 15,000 different items.

“COVID has caused some of the bottling companies and vendors to struggle a little bit to get product to us,” Kerns said. “That is a global issue.” DHL works with vendors to make sure to get out-of-stock products as soon as possible.

Trucks deliver product to about 76 stores across the state, the farthest being Colebrook.

More are set to open, including new stores in Concord, Epsom and New London. A relocated store is planned in Littleton, along with a project to redevelop the Interstate 95 store in Hampton.

Many of the new stores are being relocated from plazas, where stores don’t have loading docks.

Powers says the continued push for new and upgraded stores has contributed to sales growth.

Kerns expects the volume to continue flowing out of the warehouse for the foreseeable future.

“In the conversations with the commission, they’re feeling that the numbers are going to be consistent for a good while,” he said. “What they’ve noticed is a lot of people have located to New Hampshire. People who used to live up in the northern part of the state more seasonally are staying longer. ”

If the volume keeps up, the building might have to operate 24/7.

“We try to keep a positive, upbeat working environment,” Kerns said. “It is consistent work. You stay busy. You can stay busy all the time. There is a lot of career development and growth.”