WINE BY DESIGN

The wine market has changed dramatically over the last several years. According to the Wine Institute, sales of generic wines and jug varietals continue to fall sharply, while those of premium wines increase in volume. In 1998, for example, supermarket sales of generics fell by 7%, while sales of the four most popular varietals — chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and white zinfandel — all increased substantially, with merlot alone increasing by 33%.

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Impressive wood-beamed, vaulted ceiling overlooks the wine aisles at Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop, in Grand Forks, ND; and colorful banners highlight the wine department at Terra Nova Wine & Spirits, Madison, MS.

Indeed, consumption of premium California wines (priced at $7 per 750ml and above) more than doubled over the course of the 1990s.

All of this has changed how retailers conduct their wine business, with many having dramatically increased the number of wines they carry. Over the last five years, for example, ABC Fine Wines & Spirits, a 157-store chain, headquartered in Orlando, FL, has increased its wine selection by a factor of eight times, from 500 to 4,000 wines.

Furthermore, since many of these new products are fine, or premium, wines, ABC has been installing temperature-controlled wine rooms in its new and renovated locations. Currently, 25 of the chain’s stores are so equipped.

And the wine rooms are only one part of a general upgrading of ABC’s wine departments. “Over the last several years, we have changed to white wooden wine racks, which are brighter, lighter and easier to clean, and we have a lot more informational signs and displays,” said Brad Lewis, ABC’s wine sales director. “We have been implementing a major design change.”

Keeping up with the wine market — and with customer expectations — is important, according to Henry Ponzio, owner of Suburban Liquors in Yorktown Heights, NY. Recently, Ponzio moved his store to a new location within the same shopping center.

Most importantly, he changed the store’s focus and look. “Suburban is 42 years old and has always been a nice store,” said Ponzio, “but you can’t stay asleep; otherwise, people will pass you by. We’ve reacted to the trends [in wine], the fact that customers are looking for diversity; we’ve reacted to our competition and to market conditions.”

Last November, Ponzio and his designer, Jerry Birnbach of Retail Design & Display, located in nearby Granite Springs, NY, went to work on the store’s new 6,500-square-foot location, which had previously housed a bank. Suburban now uses the bank’s old vault, complete with its original door, as its temperature-controlled wine room.

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Chicago-area Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe & Epicurean Centre emphasizes an upscale environment for its selection of primarily fine wines.

The walls of the store have been outfitted with shelves that extend almost to the ceiling and with old-style library ladders to reach the highest product. In the wine department itself, seven-foot-tall towers incorporate informational graphics, such as maps, to mark off the different wine regions. Looking at this signage “becomes an informational experience as well as making it easy for people to find what they are looking for,” explained designer Birnbach, who is a fellow with the Institute of Store Planners. Indeed, according to Ponzio, customers spend a lot of time walking through the store, reading the signs.

The store, which is equipped with its own tasting bar, sponsors many wine classes and events. “We have a Passport Club‚ where customers come in for 20 or 30 minutes on a weekend. We go to one of our departments and, using the signage, give a talk on that wine region, before taking the customers to our tasting bar,” explained Ponzio. For other classes, the store’s staff carves out “classroom space,” large enough to seat up to 40 people, by moving around tall wine racks, which have been set on casters. “People always marvel at that,” Ponzio reported.

The three-store Luke Super Liquors chain, headquartered in Brewster, MA, responded to changes in the wine market by creating two wine departments in one of its stores: one for its basic varietal wines and one for its finer wines, according to A.J. Luke, general manager. Though not in a separate temperature-controlled room, the fine wines are set apart in a corner of the store, laid down in special racks made of California redwood. The ceiling over this department is not the usual white but a smoky gray, the floor is carpeted rather than tiled and the lighting comes from recessed fixtures that cast color-corrected incandescent light rather than fluorescent.

“It looks like the wine room in a [private] house,” explained Ed Swiniarski, the store’s wine manager. “Anyone interested in buying wine is lured into it.”

Since adding this second wine department two years ago, the store’s wine sales continue to grow. “The average increase is at least 20%, but some weeks, sales have grown by 40%,” said Luke, who pointed out that the chain’s investment in the department’s design — approximately $50,000 — has been well worth it.

Retailers say the single most important aspect of wine department design is the first impression it makes on customers. As one retailer put it, “Before the mind thinks, it feels.” Though that first impression forms in seconds, it can convey a lot of information: price range, selection, how easy and comfortable the shopping experience is likely to be, the type of service to expect.6811WINE9

Henry Ponzio, owner of Suburban Liquors, in Yorktown Heights, NY, stands outside the store’s temperature-contolled fine wine room, which used to be a bank vault. (A bank previously occupied the store’s location.)

Two Chicago-area retailers, both of which were recently named among the city’s best wine shops by Chicago magazine, illustrate how different these first impressions can be. Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe & Epicurean Centre, a 3,200-square-foot store, is firmly committed to fine wines and upscale spirits. Owner Johnson Ho actually limits the number of wines he carries, to approximately 1,500, preferring to see his store as the type of place that presents its customers with only the best rather than the type of store at which a customer can find anything and everything. “Having 60 choices of pinot grigio is more intimidating than offering the 10 best,” he said. “Of course, if the customer wants something specific, we can get it for them in two business days.”

Ho’s goal is to have customers’ first impressions be of an “uncluttered, friendly, credible” store. That’s why he displays half-bottles, famous brands, such as Opus One, and what he calls “discovery wines,” priced under $10, toward the front of the store.

In his design, he has also made sure that the customer can survey the entire store in one sweep. No shelves are more than chest-high, and the back and side walls are in sight.

Ho also wanted his store’s design to convey an upscale feeling. That’s why customers are greeted in the parking lot and at the entrance by European-style gardens of herbs, roses and other flowers. And it’s why the door to the store is made of wood, painted a deep green and outfitted with brass handles. In the store itself, a chandelier hangs over what Ho half-jokingly calls “the little temple of wine education,” a table holding the more than 100 products, both spirits and wine, available for tasting that day.

Every detail counts at Knightsbridge. The floor in the store is real oak with a cherry stain. “I insisted on a real wood floor,” said Ho. “If you want to be credible, the last thing you want is anything fake.” The shelves are designed so that the customer never has to stoop or reach. The air conditioning and venting systems are set so that all the wine bottles are always cool to the touch.

“It costs a fortune,” admitted Ho, “but in the upscale wine business, the investment pays off after 5 to 7 years.”

Meanwhile, Fred Rosen, owner of Sam’s Wines & Spirits, described the look of his famous store as “controlled mayhem.” Rosen moved the store to a much bigger location, going from a 9,000-square-foot space to a 33,000-square-foot one, four years ago. “We use the extra space for massive displays, wider aisles and much more product,” he said.

“When people see our displays under our 40-foot ceilings, their mouths drop open, it blows their minds.”

Rosen, who described his store’s wine selection as “at least 15,000 facings,” explained, “We market by carrying more products than our competitors can. Customers will tell us they can get wines from us that they couldn’t find when they were in Paris or in California. We hear it all the time.”

Rosen does not want his store to look fancy. “People equate snobbery with high prices,” he said. The look he is after? Functional. “My people dress in T-shirts and shorts. We spend a fortune on computers and on our delivery service, all of our storage is temperature-controlled as is our transportation for wines coming from Europe, but we have no fancy apparatus,” he said.

Indeed, Rosen believes that other factors are more important than the look of the store. “The most important thing is to have knowledgeable people,” he said.

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Suburban Liquors incorporates attractive seven-foot towers throughout the wine department, featuring colorful posters and informational maps.

Still, store design is an important way to comfort and guide their customers as they shop for wine, especially in stores that are geared toward self-service. According to designer Birnbach, wine, compared to other types of retail products, is relatively hard to design for. “It’s such a complex business, with so many brands and prices,” he explained. “Some retailers just put 50 feet worth of wine into their store, but I equate designing for wine to journalism: you need to give people headlines and banners.”

In Suburban, the store he designed, people walk past the seven-foot-high wine information towers and see all the different wine regions laid out for them. “There is a lot of impulse buying in that store,” he said.

Hal Gershman, owner of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop, a four-store chain based in Grand Forks, ND, opposes the use of a separate room for wine. “What a separate wine room says is, ‘You’d better know a lot if you come in here,'” he explained.

In his newest store, a 10,500-square-foot space with 41-foot ceilings, the wine department, with its specially made white-oak racks, is placed front-and-center. “You have to go by or through it to get anywhere else in the store,” said Gershman. “It exposes people to wine. It’s like our advertising slogan: ‘We take the mystery out of wine.'”

The organizing principles used in a wine department can, likewise, make people feel comfortable — or intimidated. When the present management arrived at Centennial, a 28-store chain based in Dallas, TX, they found a wine department where the wines were arranged, not by type, not by price, but in alphabetical order. “When I came in April of 1996, the wine department was — shall we say — suffering,” said Roger Voss, the chain’s wine buyer and executive vice president. Since his arrival, Voss has tripled Centennial’s wine selection — and he arranges it in a more typical fashion: first by region, then by varietal and finally by price.

Like many retailers, Voss is torn by the need to guide and inform his customers and by the desire not to junk up the look of his wine department. He had permanent signs made to mark the regional divisions within his department, but he limits the temporary signs he’ll display to ones made by Centennial itself and to a few of the more attractive and informational pieces offered by suppliers.

Meanwhile, at Luke Super Liquors, wine manager Ed Swiniarski can’t even bring himself to hang signs designating wine regions. “There is a flow, a pattern to how the wines are arranged,” he pointed out. “For people who know wine, it’s immediately clear, and for people who are just starting out, it just takes them a few minutes. But I’ll probably give in: I worry about what will happen when I go on vacation.”

Investing time, money and thought into the look and organization of the wine department is a sound business decision, according to these retailers. “People are looking at shopping as an entertainment experience now,” said Knightsbridge’s Ho. And an impressive wine department attracts customers while a well-designed one makes it easier for them to buy — and more likely that they’ll come back.

Cheryl Ursin is a regular contributor to Beverage Dynamics and Cheers. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times and other publications.


WINE DEPARTMENT TIPS

* First impressions are the most crucial elements of design for a wine department. Make sure your wine section is conveying the image you want consumers to experience.

* Some retailers emphasize the high end, with special temperature-controlled fine wine rooms, while others prefer to keep the area inviting but less intimidating to the average consumer. Some retailers actually create two wine departments within one store, with fine wine sections clearly separate from the main wine department.

* Display wine information — reviews, regions, maps, varietal characteristics, vineyard histories, and anything else consumers might find interesting or helpful — to create a wine-friendly atmosphere.

* Wooden shelving and racks, though an expense, give the section an upscale look that is still approachable for easily intimidated consumers.

* Decide what types and price ranges of wines you want to emphasize, based on a cross-section of your existing and potential clientele. Some retailers offer an incredibly wide selection that draws lots of customers. Others prefer to focus on what they consider the top wines in a particluar price range. Selection and pricing are key.

* Knowledgeable wine salespeople are essential to a successful wine operation.

* Create tasteful banners, signs, towers, displays — anything that generates excitement in the wine section without being too obtrusive. But remember, if you’re trying to reach the masses, don’t be too fancy.


LAYING DOWN ON THE JOB

Retailers who focus on the premium end of the wine business say there is one design message that is increasingly important to fine wine customers. Simply put, they notice whether bottles of fine wines are displayed standing upright, which can, over time, dry out the corks, or laid on their sides, the better way to store wine.

Even at Centennial — “Where, with the Texas humidity, corks ain’t ever going to dry out,” said Roger Voss, wine buyer — many of the wines are on their sides. “People do look for that and it displays the labels better, anyway,” added Voss.

Furthermore, customers understand which wines should be laying down and which don’t have to be. “We don’t lay down our fighting varietals. Those turn over quickly and people understand that,” said Hal Gershman, owner of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop, Grand Forks, ND.

Laying down wines means using specialized racks, whether made of wood or wire, rather than standard metal store shelves. Wooden fixtures, in particular, can be expensive. When Luke Super Liquors spent $50,000 to build a fine wine department, $36,000 of that money was spent on the wooden fixtures, from Wine Cellars Innovations in Cincinnati, OH (800-229-9813; www.winecellarsinnovations.com). Gerry Moshofsky, president of Newood (800-233-9663; www.newood.com), a fixture manufacturer, located in Eugene, OR, which specializes in wooden displays, estimates that wooden shelving for a fine wine store costs, on average, $15,000 to $25,000, or about $1.50 to $2.00 per bottle. As for wire, one of the most popular wire racks from Zimair Displays (800-634-7752; www.zimair.com), a fixture company in Fort Worth, TX, holds 144 bottles and sells for $80, or about $0.55 per bottle.

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