Face to Face: Missoula Wine Merchants finds ways to evolve its business

When the Missoula Wine Merchants opened five years ago in downtown Missoula, business was good. And when the pandemic hit, it found new ways to thrive.

Considered an essential business under Gov. Steve Bullock’s directives, the retail store never closed. But owner Doug Ness admits that business was slow.

“We didn’t have much walk in business,” he said. “Most people thought we were closed, but we’ve been open the whole time.”

The Wine Merchants entered the pandemic with 10 part-time employees, and Ness is proud to admit that each one of them remains on board. The shop took precautions to keep its employees and customers safe, using gloves and masks as a precaution while sanitizing the shop.

As Ness looks around downtown Missoula as the city’s phased reopening gains momentum, he believes it will take time to establish a new normal.

“I think it really varies more than anything else,” he said. “Some businesses have been affected very dramatically, and some have not been affected as dramatically. It will take time to come back, and that will depend on how the public treats this reopening and how cautious we are.”

Public health officials this week delivered a similar message, urging consumers to follow guidelines as they reenter society. The success of the phased reopening will dictate how far it advances and whether coronavirus makes an aggressive return.

And like many retailers in Missoula, Ness found new ways to evolve his business. It was born from necessity, but he likes the changes enough to keep them.

“We quickly transitioned from being a traditional retail store to being essentially a warehouse with a free delivery business,” he said. “We’ve been delivering wine to people for the last six or seven weeks or so since this started. They’ve really appreciated that.”

He plans on keeping the delivery program as the retail store regains customers.