Why Astor Wine & Spirits Lost Me As a Customer

A frustrating exchange with the people who run Astor Center, the events and classes space above Astor Wines & Spirits here in New York City, has led me to question my over-reliance on the liquor store and seek out alternatives.

It started last Tuesday when I bought two full-price tickets ($20 each) for Astor’s Holiday Gift Bazaar, a three-hour affair full of free wines, spirits and cocktails on Saturday the 11th. The day after I bought the tickets, I saw a discount code—$5 off per ticket—on Astor’s twitter feed. So I forwarded my invoice to the Astor Center and asked them if they would honor the discount. They would not.

What frustrated me so much was not just finality with which Astor said ‘no,’ but the ham-handed upsell that came with it: I was offered a third ticket, the one thing I couldn’t use, at half off. When I pressed them on it, saying that I felt like a sucker for buying my tickets early, they reiterated the offer of a third ticket. At that point, I started getting angry.

After all, I’ve been buying wine and liquor at Astor for four years. My girlfriend and I have taken four classes at Astor Center. And what are events like the Holiday Bazaar for if not to introduce you to new products to buy at the store? We were planning on spending more money after the event.

So I asked Astor Center to refund my $40, telling them that I no longer wanted to attend. They obliged, and they were nice about it. They encouraged us to attend anyway, for free. But we didn’t, and we won’t be going back to Astor for a while.

While they made it right in the end, it took way too much haggling. Why not just honor the discount code? How many people actually ask for it after a purchase? And if they can’t bring themselves to give the discount to a loyal customer who follows them on Twitter, why not offer a discount on a future class or purchase?

I don’t know, but it made me ask myself why I go out of my way to shop at Astor, which is in Manhattan, when I work nowhere near it and live in Brooklyn. I’ll be trying out Drink Up NY, an internet business with a storefront in Park Slope just off the 4th Avenue F train station. It’s more convenient, they have a wide selection, and their prices are quite competitive.

[UPDATE, TUESDAY 12-14-10] The Astor Center’s manager responded in the comments section, and she was both reasonable and refreshingly human. This was a welcome change after my previous polite but mechanical exchange with Astor. I’ll be back to the Astor store and the Astor Center eventually. As I said in my reply below, it’s still one of the best liquor stores–indeed, liquor institutions–in New York City. But I’m taking a break.

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5 Responses to Why Astor Wine & Spirits Lost Me As a Customer

  1. I’m shocked to hear this from you, but still more so at Astor. That larger space has finally made them too big for their britches. Maybe they should partner with Walmart!

  2. M.G. says:

    Hear, hear!! I think customer service is a thing often forgotten in NYC. Some businesses might think, ‘this is a city of millions–so what if you never come back?’ But this attitude is a mistake. Word-of-mouth is important (and free publicity). I personally recommended Astor to other folks who had never been there and they’ve spent a ton of money. I would hate for anyone to have a negative experience after my recommendation and won’t recommend a place where I (or a friend) had been poorly treated. How much effort does it really take to make your customers feel appreciated?

    Hopefully service is better at Drink Up NY.

  3. I think a lot of New York businesses — but mostly popular bars and restaurants — have that ‘we have plenty of customers waiting’ attitude. I don’t think Astor thinks this way, and I was surprised they weren’t more accomodating. What difference does it make who gets the $10 off? If you’re willing to give it to people on Wednesday, why not help out the guy who got his tickets Tuesday? Businesses hide behind unbreakable rules they create themselves. It’s not that they can’t apply the discount retoractively, it’s that they won’t.

  4. Hi there – I’m the GM of Astor Center. I’m sincerely sorry that you had a bad experience with us and were frustrated by our attempt to manage what became a runaway discount situation on our end. As you note, we tried to make it right according to your wishes, but by that point the dissatisfaction horse had left the discount gate.

    I regret to hear that both Astor Center and our sister company have lost you as a customer and guest. You’ve attended events with us before so I think you are familiar with the level of hospitality we offer, and you have shopped with the store for years so you know that we prioritize value and integrity. I promise that our collective britches aren’t too big, and we appreciate all of our interactions with our guests and customers.

    I invite you to consider that businesses make mistakes just like the people who comprise them, and I wholeheartedly welcome any further conversation you might want to have about the nature of customer service, discounts or other business practices here at Astor.

  5. Thank you, Jennifer, if you’re reading this. Your response is just the right balance between witty and reasonable. And you’re right, one customer interaction doesn’t represent the culture of a whole company.

    Not to get too philosophical about what ultimately amounts to a $10 argument, but I think we–customers, especially in some niche markets like the wine/cocktail/mixology world–get wrapped up in our relationships with retailers and brands: we can become fiercely loyal and partisan. When an interaction goes sour with a business we feel a connection to, it feels like a betrayal, like our loyalty has been rewarded with indifference, or even a jab. Hence my indignation.

    The first commenter to this post, a friend, was surprised by it because of the reverence with which I’ve talked about Astor in the past. I’ve recommended it endlessly, both for its excellent selection and prices and for its service.

    I’ll come back to Astor–more than just one of the best liquor stores in New York, Astor has become an institution–but I need a break for a while.

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