Location, Location, Location
| 2016 Q4 | story by Emily Mulligan | photos by Steven Hertzog
Where you live and shop for groceries may be the determining factors in what type of spirits you find at your local liquor store.
Customer service and a personal touch are the keys to happy customers and repeat business at Lawrence retail liquor stores, local store owners and managers say.
It would seem that in a college town rife with tailgate parties and graduation celebrations, retail liquor could be a simple, straightforward business, where the shelves are stocked and the cash register rings constantly. However, several retail liquor store employees work hard to rise above the crowd and attract both college students and higher-end local residents—and keep bringing them back.
Parkway Wine and Spirits, 3514 Clinton Parkway, has been open almost 16 years, and manager Michael Walters has been overseeing inventory and service for the past two years.
Most of the store’s business comes from its proximity to Hy-Vee. Walters says customers sometimes even bring their groceries into the store to show the staff what they are cooking and ask for beer- and wine-pairing recommendations. He always has lollipops for the kids and says something as simple as that can be the reason people keep coming back to the store. It is a small space, but Walters and the store’s owner, Brian Fadden, stay up with industry trends and do their best to carry what is new and in demand in beer, wine and spirits.
Matt Easley and his sister-in-law, Jennie Storm, opened On the Rocks, 1818 Massachusetts St., in 2009 at what ended up being the bottom of a recession. Easley and Storm had worked in the local restaurant scene and wanted to work for themselves. The store was one of few retail liquor locations east of Iowa Street at the time, and Easley and Storm planned to fill a large proportion of the store’s 10,000 square feet with wine.
“People said, ‘You’re crazy. Nobody’s going to buy wine on that side of town.’ I said, ‘That’s just because nobody’s selling it.’ Now, people thank us for being here,” Easley says.
The store now carries more than 2,000 wines—even more than the 1,700 wines the business claims on its sign, Easley explains. On the Rocks also opened toward the beginning of an ongoing craft-beer boom, so he and Storm created a walk-in “beer cave”: essentially, a room-sized refrigerator stocked with cases of both traditional and craft beers. The store also carries a sizeable selection of spirits.
“It’s a big place—where do you start? You need someone to help you. We look at the store from a service standpoint and try to be different. Customer service in most places, not just liquor stores, is a lost art,” Easley says.
City Wine Market, 4821 W. Sixth St., opened in 2010 after owners and longtime college friends Steve Wilson and Jamie Woodall-Routledge left their previous jobs and completed the Culinary Institute of America’s Certified Wine Professional program in the Napa Valley. Wilson previously worked for specialty wine retailers in Kansas City, Missouri, and Woodall-Routledge had worked in fine dining for chefs Michael Smith and Debbie Gold. Both were still living in Lawrence and commuting daily to their jobs, so the retail liquor store venture allowed them to work where they lived.
Originally, Wilson and Woodall-Routledge planned to sell almost exclusively wine in the store, but the popularity of craft beer and spirits among their customers led them to expand the store’s offerings.
“We both kind of saw the world of wine and spirits first through fine dining,” Wilson says. “The way we sell the products we do is stolen from the fine-dining world: We purposely don’t carry everything; we focus on the price point.”
Either Wilson or Woodall-Routledge greets and guides every customer in the store. Wilson calls it the “concierge” approach, which they have adapted from their experience in fine dining. They taste every wine they carry, they choose their wines based on the best quality at each price, then they take a personal interest in “hand-selling” the products to each customer.
City Wine Market opened a second location at 900 New Hampshire St. in the fall of 2015 hoping to capture customers in Downtown Lawrence as construction is completed on several residential projects. They have continued the same philosophy in the downtown store as the west-side store.
The College Factor
The store owners find they must appeal to the college-aged customer in some way, in addition to focusing on products for more mature drinkers.
Walters says Parkway has a significant walk-up beer sale business in the evenings, likely both from Hy-Vee shoppers and from the many large apartment complexes in the area. He stocks cases and six-packs of the popular mainstream beers for that core customer group.
On the Rocks also sees a fairly large college crowd because of its location near KU’s campus and Greek houses.
“We know we need to have the beer cave stocked with 30-packs of beer and have them cold, and have them at a fair price,” Easley says.
Wilson explains the west side location of City Wine Market hardly ever sees business from the college-student crowd, but the downtown location has put them more on the beaten path with younger customers.
Still, he says, they want to keep their stores with similar inventory and a similar business plan.
“There are certain value products that are not known for their quality, and there are certain products we refuse to carry. We located there primarily for the developments going in on New Hampshire Street,” Wilson says.
Despite being in a college town, these stores’ business definitely does not start and end with the college-age crowd.
Walters says Parkway Wine and Spirits functions much like a typical neighborhood retail liquor store in Kansas. His customers usually live nearby, either in single-family residential developments or apartment complexes, and they likely shop at Hy-Vee and Parkway for that reason.
Days tend to be quieter at Parkway because it is a neighborhood store, and most people are at work. In addition to the college students, evening is the time that families go to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner. That is when Parkway’s selection of about 400 wines comes into play, as well.
“About 75 percent of all of our sales are after 4 p.m., and most of them are Wednesday to Saturday,” Walters says.
Easley says On the Rocks definitely sees an increase in business among 21 to 25 crowd on the weekends for house and game parties. But he says the store also draws from its diverse surrounding neighborhood and, increasingly, from all over Lawrence for its wine, craft-beer and craft-spirits selections.
On the Rocks also has a wholesale license and operates a wholesale liquor business that supplies craft beer, wine and specialty cocktail spirits for restaurants such as Merchants Pub and Plate, John Brown Underground and Hank Charcuterie.
Because many of the restaurants they supply specialize in craft cocktails, On the Rocks carries a larger selection of specialty spirits for its retail customers than it might otherwise, Easley explains. So, that likely has contributed to the store becoming a destination store in addition to a neighborhood store.
Most of City Wine Market’s customers at its Sixth Street store come from within two miles of the store. But, Wilson says, they also have regular customers from Baldwin, Eudora, Tonganoxie and even Topeka and Manhattan. He says the vast majority of the store’s customers are over age 30.
“Our customer is somebody who sees wine more as a condiment on the dinner table than as a special occasion. Maybe they have traveled and experienced wine that way. They also enjoy both cooking and dining,” Wilson says.
He says the store is catering to a growing interest in high-end wines, bottles $40 and up, for cellaring, something that was not part of his and Woodall-Routledge’s original plan but that now accounts for about 30 percent of the business.
Marketing and Advertising
None of these stores have large marketing budgets, but all three spend a lot of effort focusing on their image and brand.
“The No. 1 way to gain customers is to treat people well, including employees, and provide good service. If you don’t do that, anything else you spend your money on is worthless,” says Easley, of On the Rocks.
Wilson, of City Wine Market, and Walters, of Parkway Wine and Spirits, definitely share that philosophy of customer service.
Even with a good reputation and positive impressions on customers, it is good for the businesses to keep their name in front of customers and build their brand.
In the past, On the Rocks made TV ads on local cable, which Easley says a lot of customers mentioned when they were airing. He has also done print advertising in the newspaper and local magazines but says he has focused more recent marketing efforts on social media, particularly for promoting new inventory items. Now that the business is established and so many people are familiar with the brand, Easley says it is difficult to determine how much the marketing efforts grow sales above what they already would be from walk-in traffic.
This year, Parkway printed official KU men’s basketball schedule posters with the store’s logo on them to distribute to customers. Walters says the store is also part of the advertising on this year’s Women of KU swimsuit calendar. Having advertised on the radio and in the newspaper in the past, he says one of the single best marketing tactics is the store’s neon sign in the front window. Most of the surrounding businesses close earlier than Parkway, so the store stands out after dark and draws customers—particularly Hy-Vee shoppers—in.
City Wine Market has a large email list and compiles a weekly newsletter featuring interesting or thematic wines, which Wilson says is very effective. In more recent years, he has started using social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, in addition to the email list to highlight certain wines and promote the store’s free weekly wine tastings on Saturdays. The tastings are the ideal way to showcase the store’s boutique aspects and personal touch, Wilson says, because they give Woodall-Routledge and him an opportunity to present products face-to-face.
Although the retail liquor business has a lot of regulation and literal heavy lifting, these stores make it a point to remember that they are also in the party business.
“It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun,” Easley says.