Q&A With WSWA’s President and CEO Francis Creighton

Jan 31, 2024


During Access LIVE, we had a chance to sit down with Francis Creighton, who has led Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America since September 2022. Creighton weighed in on the intriguing discussions going on at the premiere industry event as well as current trends in the beverage alcohol industry.


Q: All three tiers of the industry are here at Access LIVE — what is the benefit of having them all in one place, and why is it so important to convene once a year at Access LIVE as a touch point?


As wholesalers, we sit in the middle of the beverage alcohol ecosystem as the critical link between supplier and retailer. And just as we bring people together in our work, we want to bring people together here at Access LIVE. This is a place for all of us to get excited about 2024 and the opportunity we have. The market — the American consumer — is changing all the time, and we’re all trying to figure out how best to serve what the consumer is looking for.


Access LIVE is a place for wholesalers and retailers to learn about what suppliers, new and established, are working on — a chance for suppliers to link up with their customers and their customers’ customers (wholesalers and retailers), and for all of us to learn about some big challenges we are all facing together. Look, we bring people together. Our products bring people together. And we are happy to host 2300-plus people here, bringing industry stakeholders together to do some business, learn a little bit and hopefully have some fun.


Q: Lots of data and trends get presented by WSWA’s SipSource here at Access LIVE. Why is data so important to the industry?


Every quarter, wholesalers and suppliers sit down and review their business. Having verified, accurate numbers allows everyone to get down to business and not argue about which numbers are the “true” picture. With such a diffuse American retail environment, it’s difficult to capture what’s really happening in the market. By looking at actual depletions, we can get a firmer handle on what is leaving the wholesalers’ warehouses, to whatever retail channel. This allows everyone to have an accurate and reliable picture of the industry’s trends and performance.


What’s so exciting about what we heard at breakfast is the ability to take these data from “Here’s what happened last month” to “Here’s what will happen in the future.” It’s incredibly valuable for all sides of the business relationship.


Q: The issue of retail theft received a lot of time and attention at Access LIVE. How is this issue impacting the industry and ultimately consumers?


First, people should understand that this issue arose because wholesalers told us it was an important problem they’re facing. Sure, we’ve all heard media reports about retailer concerns over the last couple of years, but most of us haven’t heard about how it was impacting beverage alcohol specifically. And once we heard about it, we got to work. So, this illustrates the importance of our wholesaler members engaging with us and telling us — either in a forum like Access LIVE or by contacting me or my WSWA colleagues (my email is francis@wswa.org) — about what issues matter most to them. We want to know what’s happening out in the market, and if we can help, we want to work on it.


But how is organized retail theft impacting wholesalers? First of all, we’ve always had theft. But we’re not talking about the guy who walks into a retail store, sticks a bottle of spirits under his shirt and walks out. We are talking about organized people casing stores and specifically choosing certain brands. We’re talking about coordinated groups walking in, clearing shelves and walking out. And what are they doing with the product? They’re fencing it to criminal organizations who are reselling it illicitly online. It’s a big problem.


So, retailers are figuring out how to limit the damage. They’re stocking their shelves with fewer bottles, so if the bad guys hit they’ll walk out with less product. And that means wholesalers have to make more frequent deliveries to restock shelves. Retailers are also choosing to put more product behind the counter, or in extreme cases, even putting more product behind glass. This drives down consumer behavior, making it harder for customers to be moved by the moment.


Before Halloween, I was in my local liquor store and as I walked toward the register I saw a pumpkin spice RumChata display. I’m not a pumpkin spice person but my wife is, and I thought, “This could be fun.” So I bought a bottle and brought it home (Julia was thrilled). But if that bottle were behind glass and I had to wait for a store employee to come over and unlock the case, I probably wouldn’t have made the purchase.


More than most consumer products, beverage alcohol is bound by impulse purchasing. So, anything that adds friction to the consumer process is a problem. In today’s environment we don’t want to give consumers any more reasons to walk past our products.


Q: The is the first year hemp-derived beverage brands are on the show floor. Why was it important to incorporate this emerging industry into Access LIVE?


Our beverage alcohol industry is the most innovative in the world. We respond to consumer cues and anticipate its needs. And in a world where hemp and cannabis products are becoming more and more accepted, we have to roll with those market changes.


Now, hemp-derived beverages sit in a regulatory no-man's land. To be clear, we believe all cannabis and hemp products should be regulated in the same way alcohol products are — and especially for public health and public safety reasons, we should have some regulatory certainty.


In the meantime, our members need to understand what is happening in the market, and we are so happy Access LIVE is one of the places they can go to learn about new products — not just hemp derived products, but also no-/low-alc products and other market innovations that today’s consumers are calling for.


Q: What can we expect at Access LIVE 2025?


I can’t wait. For one thing, this will be the first time we are breaking up the Orlando/Vegas dichotomy. So just the fact that we are going to be in Denver next year is amazing. But I think what we are going to see is more innovation in new products, primarily in embracing cocktail culture with no- and low-alc products. I also expect to see more innovation coming in ethnic markets, with increasing representation from products like baiju (a spirit made in China), or whiskey from India.


Finally, I think you are going to see more wine regions represented next year, as wholesalers seek out new partners and flavor profiles for an increasingly curious consumer. I also think we’ll continue to see the kind of programming you aren’t going to be able to catch in the trade press or by watching cable news; industry leaders want to speak at Access LIVE because this is the place where they have everyone who matters in the room, all at once, brought together by the wholesaler tier.