Posted on | February 1, 2012
Written by | Brandy Rand
Americans are known for super-sizing just about everything, from hamburgers to SUVs. We’ve come to associate bigger with better, and often make purchase decisions at stores that offer the widest selection at the lowest price. And when it comes to alcohol, large club, grocery and regional chains tend to dominate certain markets. Because they buy in bulk, these retailers often promote leading brands at discounted prices compared to a neighborhood wine and spirits store. Suppliers and distributors also focus more heavily on these “A” stores, as it often makes the most business sense to do so. It is, after all, about volume, right? Not so fast….
Just as consumers began trekking to farmer’s markets to pay more for a just-picked tomato, they also started searching for craft beers, esoteric wines and local spirits. Emulating the shopping experience at a European market—buy what you need, when you need it, from someone you know—little shops started springing up across the country. Their goal? To get personal with customers and brands. And to present wine based on style, context and taste profile—not ratings.
“Everyone deserves a neighborhood place,” declares Randy Clement from Silver Lake Wine in Los Angeles. He and his partners opened eight years ago in the artsy, growing Silver Lake neighborhood and doubled the size of the store to 2,500 square feet after three years in business. Getting customers was about shaking hands and creating an environment that was the antithesis of a typical “big box” liquor store. “We hired interior designer Ana Henton to create a cool space and we are also cardboard free.” The aesthetics play an important role—warehouse versus cozy, creating an environment that most people prefer. Clement goes a step further by promising you will never find any brand sold at a chain store on his shelves: “Everything we have is boutique and small production.”
LOS ANGELES, CA
“Customer service, no snobbery, no pretense and everyone is welcome. We may own the store, but the people who come here are what define it.”
Wine & Provisions
“The shop is blossoming in to something that is really customer-centric. I feel like a host when we open our doors and we have a party every day! Our staff speaks multiple languages and offers choices to our customers. We are all like family and friends.”
Retail Gets Intimate
With limited space, a common key to success across these stores is their ability to eschew big brands and focus on burgeoning producers, both global and local. Maureen Rubino from Central Bottle Wine & Provisions in Cambridge, MA, works only with small distributors to offer a hand-picked selection of around 100 beers and 700 wines. “We carry products we can become intimate with and know the winemakers,” she says. “Larger stores carry more recognizable brands and can move volume this way, while we work with small vendors.”
And customers don’t seem to mind. In fact, those who frequent small shops build a rapport with the staff and happily try recommendations based on their suggestions. As Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections in Chicago explains, there is no advantage in overstocking his shelves: “Rather I taste, search and narrow down the best of the best and give my customers my opinions on the best selections available.” He looks at this as a competitive advantage, often having access to limited-quantity items, or “hidden gems” that aren’t available to mass-market chains.
At the 800-square-foot Dry Dock Wine and Spirits in Brooklyn, the loyal Red Hook neighborhood clientele shops a “meticulously curated” selection. Co-owner Mary Dudine Kyle tries to meet her customers’ needs as much as she can. “We have established ourselves as a destination shop for spirits and unique offerings of small production wines at great prices.” Like the other small stores, she emphasizes the need for spectacular service, citing the lack of individual attention and highly trained staff at larger stores. “We work hard at making your visit fun and memorable,” she says, citing weekly tasting events and a personal account service that tracks customers’ purchase to allow staff to establish a taste profile and easily suggest items to suit their tastes.
Perman Wine Selections
“Ultimately I think it all boils down to my personal relationships with my customers. When you are a wine consumer you try and find someone you can trust, someone who knows what you like, and you build on the relationship.”
Dry Dock Wine & Spirits
“We have so much to thank for our success, the location of the store in a transitional (groovy!) neighborhood with a large food market just blocks away. But above all, it’s about the people we hire who are passionate about putting the right bottle in the right hands every time.”
-Mary Dudine Kyle
With intimate space, hand-selected SKUs and knowledgeable staff, service plays a critical role in repeat business. Stores offer tastings and support community events as an important opportunity to build relationships with customers. Little’s Wine & Spirits in Denver also offers in-depth educational workshops and partners with local restaurants for dinner events. Ridgefield, Connecticut’s Cellar XV Wine Market provides free gift-wrapping, while Bauer Wine and Spirits in Boston goes the extra mile (literally) with free delivery and hassle-free shipping in-state.
Little’s Wine & Spirits
“We taste every bottle that walks through this shop. We can describe it personally to each and every customer. We are able to bring very eclectic varietals and producers because it is a ‘hand-sell’ store.”
Bauer even has veteran bartenders on staff who work with caterers and corporations looking for advice on food pairings and choosing the right mix for parties. General Manager Howie Rubin sees communication as a factor in keeping customers coming back. Besides weekly email blasts promoting things like a Sampler Case (12 wines chosen by staff at a 15% discount), Bauer maintains a weekly blog with events, pictures and wine picks, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. A constant flow of information is vital, agrees Clement of Silverlake Wine, who has over 30,000 newsletter subscribers: “We are interwoven with our community in all that we do.”
Central Bottle is an integral part of their Kenmore Square neighborhood in Cambridge, MA, with an eclectic mix of MIT students, Google executives and residents. When they opened in 2009, they were cautiously optimistic their concept of a Venetian enoteca would be accepted. “We wanted to be a meeting spot where people could hang out, buy wine, have a snack and hang out,” says partner Maureen Rubino. With a special liquor license to serve wine by the glass once a week, she says business is thriving.
Cellar XV Wine Market
“We work very hard, have good employees and a loyal customer base. Plus we try to give the best value we can to the customers at the lowest prices in order to compete with the ‘big box’ stores, chains and the Internet.”
Bauer Wine & Spirits
“It’s hard work but we are successful because we keep prices as low as we can, we hire the right people for the job and we have a passion for what we do. If you don’t have passion for your job in this business, it shows and people lose trust in you.”
-Howard Rubin with Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard
For small brewers, distillers and wineries, these stores are sometimes the only marketing vehicle available to sell their products. At the same time, this aspect of discovery is what makes a small store appealing to consumers looking to broaden their palate. It’s a win-wine situation, as the chaotic, unwieldy universe of wines and spirits is reframed on a manageable scale, without losing diversity or compromising quality. “We know what our beer, wine and spirits taste like—period,” points out Rubin, making the daunting task of helping customer choose what to drink just that much easier.
The lesson for suppliers and distributors here: Don’t overlook the little guys, especially if you have a unique product with a story to tell. For these small stores, it’s not about discounts or advertising; it’s about providing the customer with something special.