The times have been a-changin' for Twin Cities wine consumers during the past year, with a major new player in town.
Since last April, Maryland-based Total Wine & More has opened four big-box stores in the area — in Roseville, Burnsville, Woodbury and Bloomington — and lured customers to their wide, shiny aisles with low (often extremely low) advertised prices on popular brands.
So what have locally owned chains and independent stores been doing to counter or combat the arrival of this behemoth?
A lot, it turns out, from upgrading customer service and cutting margins to altering buying practices and attacking Total Wine's sales practices on proprietary brands.
"We're never going to beat these stores at price on a lot of items," said Steve Grausam, director of liquor operations for Edina's municipal stores. "They do sell a lot of things near cost, so we're never going to compete that way. We're trying to get close. We've had to cut our margins to do that."
Grausam took other steps before Total Wine opened its store on the Bloomington-Edina border. "We started rebranding our stores to emphasize that profits get poured back into the community," he said. "We worked with a consultant on customer service for our staff, what questions to ask, how to find out customer needs and their wants.
"And we're looking at bringing in products that are not at Total so we're not competing price to price. We are working with some of the smaller wholesalers. There's a lot of wine out there."
Emphasizing personal service and artisanal products also is the emphasis at Stinson Wine, Beer and Spirits in northeast Minneapolis, less than two miles from Total Wine's Roseville store. "We focus more on lesser-known wines because we can tell a story about what went into it," said co-owner Bob Anderson.
Finding such "hidden gems" has long been the primary goal at South Lyndale Liquors in south Minneapolis. Wine buyer Mitch Zavada said he started taking that approach a decade or so ago, anticipating wine sales in grocery stores. "We are going to keep hunting for what we want to put our name on. We're still hanging our hat on what we care about and what we count on our customers to appreciate."
Not that he's ignoring Total Wine's pricing on popular brands. "I'm working into my budget buying wines like Kim Crawford and Marietta Old Vine," Zavada said, "buying more of that and taking lower margins so we can be competitive."
At the Cellars chain, buyer Ray Zemke said he has been "moving away from mass-produced, mass-marketed wine and going for more truly artisanal products anyway, so Total coming in has had less effect."
But Zemke also is going on the offensive over what he and Zavada call Total Wine's "bait and switch" tactics, where customers are lured with low advertised prices on popular wines, they said, but once in the store are steered toward house brands.
"We're handing out something called 'Being an informed consumer,' " Zemke said. "It's a sheet listing Total's proprietary brands, their cost, their markup and what we would sell that for. We're telling people that if you feel compelled to buy in a store where your money's going to end up [in another state], only buy national brands."
Edward Cooper, vice president of public affairs and community relations, said Total Wine "welcomes" the new rivalries. "We like competition. We're free-market folks, and this benefits the customers and consumers of Minnesota."
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4.