We decided to take the leap and purchase the store. In the process of becoming new business owners, the previous proprietors endowed us with three parting pearls of wisdom including, 1) “Don’t let people see into the windows”, 2) “You can’t make any money on beer”, and 3) “Concentrate on selling the high-end wines”.
Against advice #1 of the former owners, first on our to-do list was to uncover the front window so that the store could be seen from the outside. One day a customer came up to the counter and asked if the store had just opened. I replied that we were the new owners, but this storefront had been a liquor store for the past three years. She told us that she shopped at the supermarket every week and never noticed that there was a liquor store just a few steps away. In the next few weeks, several more customers made the same comment. With a safe neighborhood and security system in place, it remained a mystery to us as to why the previous owners didn’t want to be seen from the outside. Hopefully their reasons didn’t involve illegal activities or the witness protection program.
Located in a blue-collar town in crowded suburbia, our sales were largely low to mid-priced spirits, popular mass-produced wines, and beer by the case. Vodka was a big seller and no matter how many different brands we stocked; someone would ask for one we didn’t carry. I’ve tasted a lot of different vodkas and I’m not saying they all taste the same. But the amount of difference in taste between Popov and Grey Goose is nothing in comparison to the difference between a sweet German Gewürztraminer and a dry California Cabernet. So why there needs to be a million different brands of vodka at every price point is something of an enigma.
It didn’t take long to realize that beer was also one of the best-selling items in the store which brings me to friendly advice #2, “You can’t make any money on beer”. We had a good-sized walk-in cooler that was constantly being organized and restocked. Cases of beer were flying off the shelves, so why would the prior owner tell us that you can’t make any money on beer?
The beer cooler, along with the entire shop, needed improvement in the signage for pricing and specials. I couldn’t help but notice that the price labels on the front of the beer shelves looked ancient to the point of being illegible. A little investigation in the inventory system showed us that the retail prices for beer hadn’t been changed in three years, while the wholesale cost kept creeping up. I suppose it was great deal for the customers, not so much for the store owner. This realization shed some light on why they weren’t making any money on beer.
Regarding advice #3, dealing in exclusive wines would have been exciting, fun and educational and, in the right location, it could have been profitable. But our shopping center location in a middle-class suburban town didn’t lend itself to such ambitions. The stock that we purchased from the previous owner, including Chateauneuf du Pape, Brunello di Montalcino, and high-end Napa Valley reds and whites, had gathered dust for three years all the while mocking his dream of becoming a purveyor of elite wines.