The system of beverage alcohol (bev alc) distribution laws in the United States may seem complex when assessing routes to market, but navigating the system is manageable when taken in a step-by-step approach. The structure of the US bev alc system mandates which laws must be strictly adhered to on a state-by-state basis. Success in the US comes with understanding the system and then customizing an approach to market entry.
For products imported into the US, the flow of goods resembles the path described in Figure 1. This system mandates that a producer can only sell to a distributor and a distributor can only sell to the retail/restaurant tier who then are licensed to sell to the consumer. If a supplier makes enough product to be attractive to an importer that is connected to a national distribution system, their route to market will look very much like Figure 1. When dis- cussing imported products, the importer is typically included in Tier One for simplicity’s sake, but it is more like a tier “1½” that is in between tiers one and two. In this case, a producer sells to an importer who sells through to the distributor, and so forth.
Finding the best route to market in the US is often the result of matching production volume to the size of an importer/distributor partner. Small importers are often looking for new, unique products to bring to market. Medium-sized importers are typically looking for products that already have a level of business in the US that are at the stage in their life cycle where they can grow with a distributor capable of promoting the product on a larger stage. Large importers are usually looking for brands that are either already built or that have the im- mediate capability to be built up significantly.
While every company is different, a simple way to assess this situation is to align how much product you are looking to sell (and have the capability to produce) in the US to the size and scope of the importer. If you are a small brand that requires a sales force to hand-sell your product, a small, specialist importer may be the best match. They have relationships with small, specialist, local and/or regional distributors. This ensures that the product and brand image is treated properly as it passes through the three-tier system.