When you visit Wilbur’s Total Beverage for the very first time, you’ll be struck by two things: how clean it is, and how it really doesn’t feel like a typical liquor store. Shelving displays are sparkling and elegant and plants dangle from the ceiling, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere as soon as customers walk through the door.
These impressions are intentional. Wilbur’s, which is located in the heart of Fort Collins, Colorado, was designed to be a family-friendly establishment. You won’t find any displays or posters featuring scantily-clad women, which is the norm for many liquor point-of-sale materials. What you likely will find is an employee vigorously cleaning the store at any given time of day, because Wilbur’s has a full-time staff member dedicated to doing just that.
You’ll also find friendly, knowledgeable staff determined to create the best possible customer experience for guests. It’s all part of managing partner Mat Dinsmore’s plan to maintain and improve his business’ reputation as one of the top beverage retailers in the state.
Dinsmore’s foray into the beverage retail business can be credited to his father, Dennis, who previously worked in the liquor retail industry as well as for Diageo (Schieffelin & Somerset). Back when Mat was still in school, the Dinsmore father and son team often talked about starting a liquor business together.
In October 2000, Dennis and a business partner purchased a struggling Fort Collins liquor store named Beverage Nation, which was situated next to a Wild Oats grocery store. Two years later, they invited Mat to buy into the business as well. It was a tough market in the middle of the early 2000s recession, and the store experienced only moderate success. Their luck changed in 2004, however, when the news came down that a Whole Foods was coming to town.
“My dad and I knew that Whole Foods was going to be a game-changer,” Dinsmore recalls. “We’d done all right until that point, but we saw this as an opportunity to take things to a whole new level.”
The Dinsmores took on some additional partners in order to fund an expansion project. They elected to trade in their 13,000-square-foot location for a new 24,000-square-foot space located between the new Whole Foods and a King Soopers grocery store. Also, they renamed their store Wilbur’s Total Beverage (the name was chosen to poke fun at a family friend’s middle name, and also because the Dinsmores wanted a unique and whimsical name to rebrand their business).
“None of this would have been possible were it not for our investors,” Dinsmore says. “They’re awesome. They have always been there to support us every step of the way, and it definitely paid off.”
Dinsmore won’t reveal his annual sales totals, but he estimates that his store does an average of five times as much business now than it did 10 years ago in the old location. In 2013 alone, Wilbur’s serviced more than 800,000 shoppers.
One advantage that Wilbur’s has going for it is the Colorado law that stipulates companies can only operate one liquor store location, regardless of its size.
“Even large corporations like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are only allowed to sell liquor at one Colorado location, so there are no chains,” Dinsmore explains. “It gives each area the opportunity to have its own player.”
The area Dinsmore chose for his business is certainly a solid one. Fort Collins is located about an hour north of Denver, and Wilbur’s is one mile south of Colorado State University, which is a huge employer and provides a great customer base of people of all ages. Because of its proximity to the Colorado border, Wilbur’s does a lot of regional business and regularly attracts customers from Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, and other neighboring states. Colorado is also a popular base for the many microbreweries, which have erupted in the past several years, allowing Wilbur’s to develop strong relationships with brewers and become known as a go-to hub for all things craft beer.
Wilbur’s services a diverse and educated client base, and customers are always eagerly clamoring for the latest new products. Dinsmore reports that his store carries approximately 12,000 different products on any given day, and is committed to procuring special orders per customer requests. In addition to an extensive beer selection (customers are in awe of the store’s impressive 62-door cooler), Wilbur’s is known for offering more than 10,000 variations of wine (wine sales account for 50% of the store’s total business). On the liquor side, Wilbur’s caters to a wide variety of products and price ranges, from 99-cent shooters to $5,000 bottles of cognac. The store also has a large giftware section, featuring everything from beer openers to glassware.
In addition to his commitment to offering customers a diverse product selection, Dinsmore is careful to keep an eye on the latest trends. As is the case just about everywhere, craft beer is all the rage right now and shows no signs of slowing down.
“What excites me the most about craft beer is that it’s getting people to try new things,” Dinsmore says. “We’re watching our customers become more educated about the products they’re buying, and we as retailers are then able to connect with our customers on a whole new level.”
On the liquor side, Dinsmore reports that vodka continues to be the category leader, but he’s observed American whiskey and Bourbon continue to rise in sales over the past several years, thanks in part to the Mad Men-inspired classic cocktail craze. As far as wine is concerned, while many regions have reported seeing an increase in moscato sales, Dinsmore hasn’t noticed that trend taking off in his store. He has, however, seen a resurgence in customer demand for more high-end wine products.
“People are really starting to come back after the recession, and our sales are evidence of that,” Dinsmore says. “During the recession, we couldn’t unload bottles of wine that cost over $12. People weren’t interested in spending that kind of money. Now, as the economy is getting better and people are also becoming more knowledgeable about beer and wine in general, you’re seeing that people are once again willing to pay a little more for unique or high-quality products.”
In an effort to effectively promote its robust product offerings, Wilbur’s operates an extensive marketing and communications plan. The Wilbur’s Rewards Card launched 10 years ago and is currently used by more than 60,000 customers. When using the card, customers accrue points resulting in a return value of 1 percent of their total purchases. The company also does some print advertising and sends biweekly e-mail messages to its list of subscribers. Social media has proven to be a popular outlet for Wilbur’s customers. The company’s Facebook page has more than 5,000 likes and consistently generates customer engagement.
“Facebook has been huge for us,” Dinsmore says. “It helps us get access to our customers in a way no other method can. And as long as you use common sense and don’t spam people with too many posts or posts that are irrelevant, people are pretty receptive to it.”
Connecting with customers is a priority for Wilbur’s, and along with print and digital communications outreach, the store goes out of its way to promote in-person engagement opportunities as well. In-store beer tastings are offered every Friday, and wine tastings are held each Saturday, giving Wilbur’s staff an opportunity to talk with customers one-on-one about various products. Because of its close working relationships with so many local breweries and restaurants, Wilbur’s regularly sponsors different beer and wine tasting dinners throughout the year.
Wilbur’s is also focused on giving back to its surrounding community. Dinsmore reports that the business works with an average of 1,000 different charities per year, offering deep discounting for fundraising events. Not only have these charitable projects helped Dinsmore make many strong business partnerships across the area, but he also abides by the principle that giving back is simply the right thing to do. He wants his business to help others as much as it can.
In January 2014, Wilbur’s partnered with Henry’s Pub, a local restaurant, and Buffalo Trace Distillery to offer a whiskey-tasting dinner featuring four extremely rare Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bourbons. Proceeds from the event were all donated to Foothills Gateway, an organization that supports individuals with cognitive disabilities. Dinsmore plans to hold the event again next year if he is once again able to procure some Pappy’s, the likelihood of which he admits is unlikely.
Customers and community organizations aren’t the only groups that Wilbur’s is so closely focused on. Dinsmore maintains that one of the reasons his business has been so successful is because of his outstanding team. With 30 full-time staff members and 15 part-timers, it’s surprising to learn that many of Dinsmore’s employees have remained with him for many years, which is an anomaly in the retail industry. But Dinsmore doesn’t see his team as just employees: to him, they’ve always been part of the Wilbur’s family. While the business has a history of hiring many friends of the Dinsmore family, Wilbur’s also has a reputation of treating every team member like part of the inner circle.
“Mat treats us like we’re members of his family, not like we’re employees on a roster,” says Wilbur’s front-end manager Morgan Fanning, who’s been with the company for eight years.
Joe Henry agrees. Dinsmore’s former college roommate, Henry was hired to work at the store while he was still in school. Fourteen years later and now a manager, Henry hasn’t looked back.
“This is a very family-oriented environment, and I enjoy all the different events that we do here and the way we’re encouraged to take initiative and closely interact with the customers,” Henry says. “It’s a very unique environment, and I like all the people I work with here. We have a lot of fun.”
While Wilbur’s continues to foster a familial sense of camaraderie among its staff, it’s now missing a key member of the family business. In May 2014, Mat’s father, Dennis, retired from the business, leaving his son at the helm. What has it been like working without his father by his side?
“It’s strange not seeing him every day, though I still see him all the time outside of work,” Dinsmore admits. “One of the greatest honors of my life has been the opportunity to work alongside my father for so long. We were able to make up for so much time that was lost when I was younger and he was working in the corporate world, when I didn’t get to see him as much.”
Mat’s mother is now a partner in the business as well, but Mat is the one assuming the patriarch role at work: he enlists in the help of his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, to assist him at the store. “She drives a hard bargain, charging Wilbur’s $6 per Sunday worked,” he reports jokingly.
So what’s next for Wilbur’s? Per Dinsmore, there aren’t any big company changes looming on the horizon. His business philosophy has always been to constantly maintain and improve things as needed, by keeping the space clean and always moving to the next painting or repair project on the list.
“That way you’re never hit with a necessary million-dollar overload later down the road,” he explains.
Instead of being focused on making any big changes to his business, Dinsmore is more interested in how the evolving landscape of the state of Colorado will ultimately affect the liquor industry in general. A member of the Wine and Spirits Guild of America, Dinsmore also sits on the American Beverage Licensees board. At all of his association meetings, Dinsmore says that the main focus is on one topic: that in January 2014, Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to legalize the retail sale of recreational marijuana. What does that have to do with the beverage alcohol industry? Quite a lot.
“Alcohol now has competition for basically the first time ever,” Dinsmore says. “People may be changing the way they choose to spend their extra money. Marijuana has been around for a long time, but is was illegal and taboo. Now it isn’t illegal, and it’s readily accessible.”
Dinsmore says that Colorado will need to wait and see how the legalization of recreational marijuana ultimately affects the liquor industry. In the meantime, he’s focusing on what he does best: continuing to make Wilbur’s the premiere beverage destination for the residents of Fort Collins.