With big-box booze stores and supermarkets opening right and left, plus Sunday sales coming soon, I’ve been worrying about the Mom-and-Pop stores.
Or I was, until I talked to a Mom and a few Pops.
Turns out that these neighborhood staples are owned and operated by resilient and resourceful souls, which helps explain why they have survived not only the Great Recession but almost-ubiquitous openings of Total, Costco, Sam’s, Trader Joe’s, Hy-Vee and other outlets. And that’s why they will be OK with being open on Sundays, even in the likely event that their revenue will see little uptick.
They’re doing it the old-fashioned way: by listening to their clientele. “Really, the customers actually manage the stores,” said Duane Weinke, who owns Liquor Barrel franchises in Golden Valley and St. Paul. “The world’s always been a competitive place, and I’m tapping into what my customers want.”
In Weinke’s case, that means seeking out “new, interesting wines. We’ve probably already lost people who buy Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and Clos du Bois, so the ones who are coming in are those who want those new things.
“It’s a different world than it was 10 years ago. People want the cool stuff, and these upstart winemakers are tapping into that interest. It’s actually invigorated me in the pursuit of good value and high-quality wines.”
Weinke not only likens it to the ongoing craft-beer craze; he’s also tapping into that. Customers who like framboise (raspberry) brews are steered toward lambrusco, for example, and the legions who are into sour beers toward sauvignon blanc.
Targeting the selection to the audience also has paid off for Pam Johnson, owner of St. Paul’s Little Wine Shoppe. When Total Wines & More opened a few miles away in Roseville, “people were curious, and the first quarter was low,” she said. “But we’ve been doing fine ever since. We’re not a destination store; we’re a wine shop that sells some beer and spirits.
“I had a customer come in and say ‘You’re the antidote to big-box stores. They have thousands of labels, and I want to try 10. Your place has hundreds, and I want to try them all’.”
It’s also all about customer service for Vernon Crowe, owner of Selby Wine & Spirits in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. “I’ve got the best customers in the world,” he said. “Some are lower-class, some middle-class, some wealthy. I know almost everybody because I grew up in the neighborhood.”
Since the shop’s opening in 2000 in a former plumbing office building, Crowe said, business has been good, aside from one rough patch: during the depths of the Great Recession, which actually ended up being a blessing of sorts.
“In 2008, it was slow. I did have people coming in crying. They’d lost their jobs and wanted a bottle,” Crowe said. “But it all worked out because people stopped going to restaurants; they’d stay in and watch a movie. We teetered and weathered the storm.”
Crowe, a strong-willed sort with a handshake to match, is fine with opening on Sundays once the recently passed law takes effect in July — “as long as liquor establishments are the only ones selling.” His concern is that the new ordinance is just a first step, that convenience stores and grocery stores will push for extended hours and more lax laws on liquor sales, period.
Crowe also echoed the thoughts of many metro-area merchants: “It might be good for college towns and border towns, but we’re not going to make any more money.”
Johnson actually did an informal survey on the topic — of 60 customers, 57 wanted her open on Sundays — and understands their sentiment. “In my mind, maybe you’re sitting around at your barbecue and think ‘Oh, yeah, I want that’, ” she said.
Weinke painted another scenario that would prompt people to stop in. “People like to go to the farmers market on Sundays, and might say, ‘Hey, I got some great veggies. I’ll get a steak and a bottle of wine.’ ”
Overall, though, he’ll just be listening to his “bosses.”
“You have to go out and give consumers a reason to stop by,” he said. “Don’t give ’em a reason to hate you. Don’t let ’em down.”
That’s the spirit that has enabled Weinke, Johnson and Crowe to not only survive but thrive in an ever-more-competitive market.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.