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    Let the Creative Juices Flow

    Unique wine retailers outside of the c-store channel can serve as inspiration for successful selling in c-stores.

    By Mehgan Belanger

    Selling wine can be difficult in any retail channel -- there is something enigmatic about the vast category that is challenging for consumers to overcome -- but in convenience stores, where customers have mere seconds to decide on a bottle, it is even more difficult. Succeeding with wine goes beyond product assortment and price points -- there is still merchandising, display, promotion, signage, customer service and more to consider.

    Intimidated yet? Think of the customer who approaches a bottle with little to no knowledge of its taste or appropriate food pairings, solely its $9.99 price point. But wine need not be daunting for the retailer or customer. C-store retailers looking to improve on or begin selling the category can examine successful wine retailers outside of the convenience industry to provide inspiration and demystify the wine business.

    Liquid Assets, a store located in the touristy hot spot of Ocean City, Md., is difficult to categorize. Ask owner John Trader what it is -- a liquor store, a bar or restaurant -- and his answer is an amused, "yes." The 4,000-square-foot store has evolved over 25 years into what it is today, from a humble beginning as 94th Street Beer and Wine, which opened in 1983, when Trader was 22.

    As he "pushed the envelope" to become the premier fine wine retailer of the area, Trader added foodservice in the form of a deli. Then came a wine bar, which opened up wine tasting opportunities, and as Trader's interest expanded into foodservice, he developed a sit-down restaurant area featuring local ingredients, eventually taking its current name, Liquid Assets. The store also features L.A. Express, a convenient take-out program for the retailer's food offerings.

    "It is very unique. We have a lot of regulars with expensive tequila and burgundies. And there are people at tables eating five course cheese plates and sipping port. Then there are people making business deals over cocktails and families eating dinner," he said. "There are a lot of flip flops and business suits in the same place."

    Wine is merchandised by flavor profile at Liquid Assets. Categories include light whites, sweet whites, full bodied whites and similar designations for pink and red wines. More than 1,600 SKUs of wine are priced from $5.99 to more than $800.

    "We feel that's the best way to expose people to different wines, while staying in the same profile," said Trader, noting the technique allows customers to experiment. "If they are looking for a crisp white, they can choose from many different types."

    Trader feels the traditional way of merchandising wine by region or varietal type is "a way to limit people's exposure," he said, adding when wine is arranged as such, "people rely on past experiences and prejudices."

    Another way Liquid Assets educates its customers and opens them up to new wines -- while also making it easier for the retailer to sell its products -- is through customer wine tastings. "Words can only take you so far," Trader explained, noting he discovered that by offering customers the chance to taste the wine on a daily basis, it was "breaking down the barrier of sales and inhibitions," and "taking the mystery out of wine at the point-of-sale," he said, comparing the strategy to "the little spoons at Baskin Robbins."

    To encourage dialogue between customers and the store's "well-versed" staff, Liquid Assets does not post information about its wines on shelves, according to Trader. "The staff is eager and exited to talk about wine," he explained.

    It is the store's staff who also connect the wine being sold to its foodservice offerings, allowing customers to enjoy correctly paired wine and cheese, meats and more. The menu at Liquid Assets changes daily, and runs the gamut from hamburgers to risotto and crab cakes. The most popular item, however, is its cheese plate, where customers can choose from more than 10 varieties of cheese, both domestic and imported. As for food pairings, servers are always available to provide recommendations, he said.

    "I learned a long time ago, not to tell people what to drink," said Trader. "When they ask, we tell, and they make the decision."

    A Blooming Business
    In 2004, after two years of international consumer research, supermarket retailer Food Lion LLC launched a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot grocery store concept called Bloom, designed from the customer's perspective. Many Bloom locations feature futuristic retail technology such as handheld scanners for customers; informational kiosks offering product locations and recipes; and shopping list services using Bloom's Breeze technology.

    Out of the 61 locations across Maryland, Virginia and North and South Carolina, all but seven have a wine selection that stocks, on average, 850 SKUs of wine priced from $2.99 to more than $50.

    Wine is merchandised in a mix of both traditional and contemporary methods. Imports are separated from the domestics, according to Karen Peterson, spokeswoman for Bloom. The imported wines are merchandised by country of origin, while domestic wines are merchandised by varietal -- reds such as merlot and cabernet, and whites such as chardonnay and pinot grigio. Finally, the varietal types are organized by palate flow from heaviest to lightest, she said.

    "Our goal is to provide a hassle-free shopping experience for our guests," said Peterson. "We merchandise our wine the way we do because we believe that is the way our guests think and approach their wine selections. We try to make it as easy as possible for our guests to find what they are looking for."

    Similar to Liquid Assets, nothing is posted on the shelves besides the item description and the price. Bloom uses the stores' décor package to outline the location of various types of wine, such as signage indicating countries of origin and varietals. In addition, the retailer posts food pairing solutions on the signage and offers a kiosk that customers can access for more information on wine. Bloom associates also receive wine training, allowing them to interact with customers and answer any questions.

    One thing setting Bloom's wine offering apart is its "Wine in Motion" section that features select and sometimes rare varietals of wine in the premium, super-premium and luxury segments on a rotational basis, creating interest in the segment.

    "New and unique offerings can be found in this section for certain periods of time," Peterson said. "The offerings are rotated out for new selections periodically."

    No Experience Needed
    In 1996, at 600 square feet, 100 SKUs and with wines priced between $5 and $10, the first Best Cellars store took an innovative approach to wine retailing -- throwing out traditional categorization methods such as varietals and regions, and instead, categorizing wine for everyday drinking by taste. The concept, launched on the upper east side of Manhattan, was the brainchild of award-winning sommelier Joshua Wesson and business partner Richard Marmet.

    "Traditional wine stores assume, through their standard categorization of bottles, that most customers know the difference between countries, regions, vineyards, vintages and producers. Of course, many don't, which is why the Best Cellars concept works for everyone -- it's based intuitively on taste," said Wesson, who is now the senior director of wine, beer and spirits for Best Cellars. "The whole Best Cellars approach could be summed up in two phrases: You know what you like. We know wine."

    Since it was launched, stores have expanded to include higher price points, up to $20, and more wine SKUs. In November 2007, the retailer became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A&P). And today, there are seven Best Cellar locations on the East Coast, and the distinctive approach it takes to wine appears to be working -- the retailer has sold more than 4 million bottles of wine since it began.

    The idea behind the store was simply to make wine shopping as easy and as enjoyable as drinking it, said Wesson, noting in the case of wine, simpler is better. "Making customers wade through a welter of detail just to make a purchase does nothing to better serve them, or meet their shopping/drinking needs."

    Best Cellars merchandises its wines by taste using a color-coded system of eight taste categories -- fizzy, fresh, soft, luscious, juicy, smooth, big and sweet, said Wesson, noting in the future under the A&P brand, all Best Cellars at A&P stores will feature between 500 and 1,000 SKUs and also be sub-divided into the following wine categories to make it easier to shop:

    -- Great Value: $15 and under, presented by taste;

    -- Premium: more than $15, presented by both country and taste;

    -- Top 10: the most popular wines according to The Nielsen Co. sales data, presented by both grape-type and taste; and

    -- Magnum Force: large format wine in magnum bottles, boxes and jugs, presented by both grape-type and taste.

    Nearly all bottles also feature shelf-talkers that list the name, category and price of the item, along with a brief tasting note and a serving tip or food suggestion when appropriate, according to Wesson.

    Enhancing the shopping experience are mobile merchandisers that tie wine to themes, such as Organic, Big Day (for special occasions) and Meat Me Here (pairings for meaty dishes), Wesson said. And to further assist customers, bottles feature neck-hangers that list staff picks and food matches such as "Great with Thai!"

    Extensive training and immersion in the Best Cellars retail environment allow store staff to "bridge the service gap that's always existed" between supermarkets, other big-box wine retailers and specialty retailers, he explained. The store itself doesn't just act as a "silent salesman," but also a "silent teacher," said Wesson, "enabling anyone spending a reasonable amount of time on the sales floor to quickly gain product knowledge without having to go through months of training and tasting."

    Wines that make it into Best Cellars have to pass a rigorous test. For every bottle that makes it in, five get the boot, he said. "To make our cut, a wine has to have easy-to-love fruit, beautiful balance and great taste the moment it's poured," he said. "Most importantly, the wine has to exceed expectations -- which is the way we define a wine's true value."

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