Name: Theresia and Horst Lüning
Year of Birth: undisclosed
Place of Residence: Seeshaupt, Bavaria, Germany
Profession: Accountant and Engineer
Whisky Involvement: Internet retailer
The small town of Seeshaupt is idyllically located at the southern end of the Starnberger See close to the Bavarian Alps. Beer is the locals’ favourite tipple by a large margin, and should they long for higher proof drinks they usually choose Obstler (eau de vie from mixed fruit) or Enzian (a spirit made from gentian root – quite an acquired taste…).
And yet Seeshaput is one of the most important whisky locations in Germany because it is home to The Whisky Store – Germany’s market leader for online whisky retail. In 1993 Theresia Lüning opened a small whisky shop in Seeshaupt. Being a local farmer’s daughter she had worked as an accounting clerk before she decided to start her own business.
The Whisky Store began as a traditional mail order retailer but soon recognized the potential for sellling whisky over the internet. In 2002 the old cellar shop had become way too small for the fast-growing enterprise, so the business moved to large new building.
Horst Lüning studied Aerospace technology in Munich and after several jobs as a mechanical engineer he beame outsourcing manager for the then world biggest IT outsourcing company. Parallel to his job he wrote his Ph.D thesis. He quit his job in 1999 to support his wife’s business.
With an annual turnover of over 10 million Euros almost exclusiviely from sales of to end consumers, The Whisky Store is by far the largest German internet retailer for whisky and may well have a top postion in worldwide comparison as well. Over 200,000 bottles – 85% of which are single malts – are sold exclusively to German customers as the company wants to stay clear of the hassle involved with selling whisky internationally. The strong German internet market for whisky is certainly helped both by the fact that the comparatively small number of German whisky lovers is not sufficient to support a large number of traditional whisky shops and that the relative demand for single malts not easily found in supermarkets is higher than elsewhere.
Earlier this year, The Whisky Store managed to acquire the domain whisky.de for an undisclosed but doubtlessly significant amount of money. To reflect that change, the website received a face lift and was relaunched this autumn. The shop now includes an increasing number of tasting videos. Whisky.de also features a blog run by Horst Lüning and a very active forum, but it has to be noted that tightening the terms and conditions for the relaunch created quite a bit of an uproar among forum users and even caused some to quit.
With the relaunch of the site, whisky.de aims take the step from a mere forum to a proper whisky community. A key element is a new database of whisky bottlings that don’t necessarily have to be sold in the online shop. Community members can create whisky collections and can add ratings and tasting notes for the bottles in the database.
How did a farmer’s daughter from Bavaria get the idea to start an internet shop for whisky?
Well – I did not start with The Whisky Store as an Internet shop. I thought about getting back to work, when my children went to school. But working as a part time clerk is very inefficient, when you have to drive to work and collect your kids shortly after noon. It was soon clear that I had to be self-employed. But what should I do? I decided to have a real mail order business with a printed price list and ads in newspapers and magazines. Being a gourmet who likes fine food, I looked after artisan olive oil or premium whisky. The decision fell finally for whisky because olive oil will turn bad after several months and whisky stays good forever. If I had failed starting my business, I would ‘only’ have to drink the whisky in stock for the rest of my life. Which is no bad option.
Did you have to fight as a woman to be accepted in a male dominated business?
Oh yes! I remember a male wholesaler who laughed at my intention to sell whisky. “You will never succeed”, he told me on the phone. Today I sell several times more whisky than he as a wholesaler does. But there are still prejudices among my customers. Sometimes men ask for a man on the phone and refrain from speaking with one of my ladies.
Christmas time is peak business in your shop. Do the orders differ from the rest of the year or is it just higher volume?
Yes, orders differ. There are a lot of additional orders but they tend to be smaller in the number of bottles. You are able to ‘feel’ these gift orders, if you pick the bottles in your warehouse. And people tend to buy more giftpacks with glasses and flasks because they are much easier to present as a gift.
Do you think that small “offline” whisky shops still have a future?
That depends on the shop. Costs for energy and heating and staff are rising fast and constantly. These costs are often covered by adding a lottery shop inside the selling rooms. This helps covering the fixed costs. But if you do not have such a cost coverage it will be very difficult to earn a living solely out of a small whisky shop. There are several other possibilities to increase your sales. Perform tastings, manage travels to distilleries, open a whisky bar for night life an so on. You have to be very creative as an offline dealer to earn a living with whisky. There are not many customers in your surroundings. Even in bigger towns whisky is still a niche product.
How does it feel when your wife is also your boss?
How about your wife? Is she not also your boss as well? Sounds like a joke, but this is real life. Everybody has to arrange with his/her partner. You will be able to arrange at work, if you are able to arrange yourself at home as well. If you are not, you will have a big problem if you retire. Dividing work from private life is an often made mistake. You can only deliver excellent work, if you live an excellent life in a whole.
The forum on your website is very active. How important is it for your business?
We changed the general terms and conditions lately on our forum and received a lot of head wind from disappointed users. Several users stopped their participation. Does it really matter? On a personal side I regret, that four dozens users left the forum. But on the business side it did not matter at all. Sales still grow at an undisturbed growth rate and new customers flow into our business and the new built community in an unknown magnitude so far. Being part of the new Web 2.0 is important. But not a single effort like a forum makes it important. It is the combination of all efforts for the customer – including the forum and the new whisky database – which helps you being successful or not.
Are you happy with the response to your new tasting videos?
I am overwhelmed with my success! If you look at our Youtube whisky channel you will discover, that I collect more than 1.000 views on every single day. That is far more than I ever expected. The beginning was quite difficult. From my old profession I am used to talk to an audience of hundreds or even thousands of listeners. But talking into black looking lenses was different and disturbing to me. There is no immediate feedback from the audience. But I received valuable feedback from the viewers over the forum and I took presentation lessons. Both helped and I am getting more professional every day. I am still far away from being perfect.
You recently acquired the domain whisky.de Will the investment be profitable even though you already have a large market share in Germany?
Buying a costly domain is always risky. But you will never know if you succeed when you do not dare. Vodka.com sold for several million dollars. Whisky.de was cheaper but for a small company like ours very expensive. We negotiated with the seller not to disclose the selling price. Investing in whisky.de will not return your money in a short run. Does the market share matter? Premium Whisky is not very popular in Germany. The target group counts for less than 0.5% of all German consumers. The buying of whisky.de had nothing to do with the competition with other Internet whisky sellers. Adding our thousands of Internet pages to the whisky.de domain helps the product whisky during its way out of the niche market in Germany. And while we actively grow the German whisky market we hope to acquire a good part of these new customers. It is no matter of competition to other dealers but to give premium whisky the Internet voice in Germany it deserves.
1. Please share a memorable whisky moment with us. This might be a fantastic dram, someone you met or any other situation that left a deep impression in your memory.
There are several moments on which we look back in pride and satisfaction. Because we are asked as dealers, we leave out the special tasting moments. Please have a look at out tasting videos for these tasting highlights. The first highlight was the financial controlling of our selling figures after the first christmas season. The moment when we found out, that we are able to run a business by selling whisky. When Horst Lüning quit his former job and joined The Whisky Store we knew that we had made it.
For Theresia Lüning it was definitely the receiving of the Young Business Award of the German trade body of the direct mail industry and getting her hand shaked with the world most important mail order business man Dr. Michael Otto from the Otto Group, the world’s biggest mail order company. It was the accolade in the industry.
Horst Lüning received his most personal satisfaction, when it turned out recently, that you can really find whiskies with comparable taste by mathematical methods and the help of the Web 2.0. Our customers rate their consumed whiskies by seven parameters in our shop system. 700 whiskies received more than 70.000 ratings so far. We added a feature to our web shop (called: seek comparable bottles) which list up whiskies which compare well with the statistically calculated parameters of a particular bottle. The dream of the mathematicians Francois-Joseph Lapointe und Pierre Legendre, who tried in 1994 to classify single malt whisky by the tastings in the book of Michael Jackson, finally came true.
2. What percentage of your life do you dedicate to whisky (sleep ignored)? Do you think it should be more or less, or is it just about right?
We dedicate most of our life to whisky. We try to keep a work life balance but if whisky is your life, how will you decide if there would be something better outside your whisky life? Family, friends and employees are very important. With them you have to have strong personal ties. This keeps you happy and alive if you live an otherwise sporty and interesting life. But why should I seek for something else than whisky when I know it is my life? We have an unwritten law in our company and our personal life. No open bottle during the day and only whisky on two days of the week. We also avoid other alcoholic beverages. Less wine, no beer, no other spirits. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and you may get addicted to it. Drink less but better. Life is too short for bad alcohol.
3. Your three tips for whisky novices
- Avoid too much whisky. “Too much of everything is not good for you (baby)”.
- Taste only two or three whiskies in a whisky evening and stay sober most of the week.
- Do not waste time with too cheap bottles. Buy less but better quality. Life is to short for bad alcohol.
4. Your three tips for experienced whisky lovers
- Try water with all your whiskies. Most whiskies release additional aromas if you add water.
- Look at your mood before you start dramming. Never drink whisky if you are in a bad mood. Trying to change a bad mood with whisky will not work. This may lead to addiction by triggering a negative (death) spiral.
- Do not have more than six bottles open at a time. You will not get more satisfaction out of two dozen bottles than out of six. Psychology proved that having more choices lead to less satisfaction. Do you remember how satisfied you were with your first really good bottle?
5. What was the last dram you had and how did you like it?
My last dram was the Talisker Distiller’s Edition and it tasted exactly how I remembered it. Fantastic! You may participate in my feeling soon on our YouTube Channel.