Retail Review: Total Wine & More
Total Wine & More, which boasts thousands of different wines and similarly deep selections of beer and spirits, opened in October 2009 at the northeast corner of Camelback Road and 16th Street in one of the Phoenix market’s strongest retail corridors. It is the fifth and largest Phoenix-area location for the 62-store chain, which is based in Potomac, Md. I visited the store twice since it opened to get a first-hand sense of its unique inventory and the customer service and operating philosophies that set this fast-growing chain apart from its competitors.
At first “blush”
Total Wine & More is located in the older, established “Biltmore” area of central Phoenix, which enjoys a very low retail vacancy rate. It anchors a small neighborhood shopping complex, Camelback Shopping Center, which is caddy-corner from the larger Colonnade Shopping Center.
The spacious 33,200-square-foot store, which occupies a former Circuit City big-box location, is the chain’s largest in the area. Hence, it can offer more-than-ample parking and ready access to its mind-boggling selections of 8,000 different types of wine, 2,000 types of spirits and 1,000 different beers. Its exterior sign, appropriately wine-colored, was conspicuous but not dominant—just subtle enough to imply, accurately, that a nuanced experience awaits inside.
But there was one immediate obstacle. When I got to the door, there was a sign stating “Must be at least 21 years of age to enter,” which made me feel as if I was entering a casino or some type of “adult” shop. Once inside, I asked a worker if children under 21 were allowed to enter if accompanied by an adult, and was quickly assured they were. I couldn’t help but wonder how many moms out running errands with their kids had decided not to stop in for a bottle of wine for dinner after seeing that deceptively restrictive sign. The store ought to clearly but tactfully qualify its entry policy at the front door to avoid needless misunderstandings and potential loss of business.
The shop is tastefully laid out in a superstore format, sort of a hybrid between Best Buy and Barnes & Noble sales floors. In-store signs were attractive, helpful and easy to read. In fact, each wine was identified by signage, which made me stop to realize just how well the store had met what had to be an imposing merchandising challenge. Store lighting was targeted but not overwhelming, the sales floor was extremely clean, well-maintained and fun to navigate, all making the place conducive to exploring.
Based on the number of people buying in bulk, it was apparent the price points were more than acceptable, particularly for the many folks who were no doubt delighted to discover hard-to-find wines. There were a number of well-heeled, older customers in the store on my two visits, as well as a balance of other age groups. I saw a group of retirement-age couples happily departing with four huge bottles of vodka and others buying multiple cases of wine. Prices were not quite as low as Costco, Trader Joe’s or World Market, but those three retailers are very targeted in the limited selections of alcoholic beverages they carry.
Unlike other wine retailers who often focus on a single geographical region or price category, Total Wine & More seems genuinely committed to the widest selection possible, and has a particular emphasis on both fine and international wines. Imported wines represent nearly half (45 percent) of the chain’s wine sales.
Employees of the amply staffed store were well-trained, disciplined and enthusiastic. Although they approached me regularly, ready to offer as much information as I needed, they did not become intrusive to my visit. Store promotions refer to employees as “wine consultants” who are knowledgeable and passionate about wine and who are eager to share their knowledge and zest for their product with customers, and the staffers did not disappoint. Employees seemed genuine when gushing about the fruitiness or oaky qualities of their own favorite vintages. The checkout experience was also a breeze. There were plenty of cash stands open with little waiting.
The store has a couple of compelling features that set it apart from most wine and spirits shops. There’s a wine-tasting area toward the middle of the sales floor, open from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. This is a great marketing vehicle for Total Wine & More and I believe it has even more potential. Though heavily stocked with collateral product, the area was smaller than you might expect. A larger space might attract more tasters and is probably quite feasible in stores with such large footprints. An adjacent seating area, where patrons could relax, graze on snacks and enjoy more of a total wine experience, would be a welcome addition too, and would probably put customers in more generous—and festive—buying moods.
At the back of the store is a classroom where wine and beer education classes are held. By demystifying the wine-buying experience in particular, customers will feel better informed and more confident about selecting the appropriate vintage. Wine classes such as “California Dreaming” and “Tour de France” are held each Wednesday night from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. There are also separate “Meet-the-Maker” sessions where actual wine makers visit, plus “Meet-the-Expert” events featuring wine, spirit and beer experts who lead tastings. Beer doesn’t exactly get short changed here either: there are all types of regional beers throughout the store that I never knew existed. Moreover, beer is the prime focus four times a year on Thursday nights for in-store classes such as “What’s Not on Tap: Uncommon, Extraordinary Beer Styles You Must Try.”
But wine will always be the brightest star at Total Wine & More. The store’s name and the traditionally healthy margins intrinsic to wine-selling make dedication of so much floor space perfectly sensible. There is a small gift shop featuring wine accessories, cigars and gift items as well. But to placate non-drinkers, owners might also consider expanding the store’s non-alcoholic selection with, for example, a limited line of coffees, “designer” sodas, energy drinks or other beverages.
In fact, it was apparent that there were very few non-alcoholic beverages available other than mixers. And while there is a modest snack selection at Total Wine, I was surprised to not find at least a few limited lines of cheeses and other wine-compatible snacks, or for that matter, pretzels for the beer-buying (and tasting) set. On the other hand, a specialty chain that’s doing as well as Total Wine & More may simply not want to tweak their success formula right now by expanding non-core inventory or offering highly perishable products such as cheese.
Popping the cork
Total Wine claims it is the largest independent fine wine retailer in the country and is the only major company of its kind to operate in multiple states (it currently operates in 10). I didn’t see anything to contradict that contention. This is one savvy retailer that obviously pays rapt attention to its target consumer, who in turn is taken by its strategic locations, copious choices, better-than-average price points, devoted customer service, efficient layouts and ongoing education efforts. That there is potential for growth in other profit centers such as the wine-tasting area and non-alcoholic drink segment may be a secondary priority for this growing company, which must remain flexible enough to merchandise stores that range from 9,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet. The only immediate “must” I can identify is the need to clarify that unintentionally misleading entryway sign.
But with an abundance of vacant big-box store sites on the market at relatively cheap rents, I suspect Total Wine & More will be popping the cork on many more grand openings in the very near future and become the dominant wine seller in just about any trade area where it locates.
Jeff Green is the president and CEO of Jeff Green Partners. His company provides strategic consultation to retailers on shopping center feasibility, redevelopment, expansions, site feasibility, medical retail planning, customer profiling and sales forecasting.