Retailer of the Year: Cork Liquors

Beverage Dynamics began presenting individual “Retailer of the Year” awards in 1996. Over the years, we’ve profiled dozens of industry leaders; these are the best of the best. This year, we’ve expanded the tradition by awarding our top honor to two retailers, recognizing a regional chain and a two-store operation looking to expand. Congratulations to Cork Liquors and Half Time Beverage, the 2016 Retailers of the Year!

Cork Liquors Fast Facts

  • Owner: Warren Scheidt
  • Founded: 1982
  • Locations: 11 (Columbus, Shelbyville and Greensburg, IN)
  • Size: 2,800 to 13,000 square feet
  • Offerings: Beer, wine, spirits and cigars
  • Specialties: Walk-in humidor

Patience Pays Off

The first 2016 Retailer of the Year is a family-owned chain of about a dozen stores located in and around Columbus, Indiana. Cork Liquors is owned by Warren Scheidt, an active member of the beverage alcohol industry who’s the current president of the American Beverage Licensees (ABL), a trade association for on- and off-premise retailers.

The first Cork location opened in Columbus in 1982, after Warren’s family obtained a permit for a new store in town in partnership with his parents Virgil and Bettie, and his brother Don.

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“We knew absolutely nothing about the business,” Scheidt says. “My father always wanted a package liquor store, so when it became available we got together and started the business in a 4,800 square-foot store, which was a big store at the time.” Since then, the original location has undergone three additions and now stands at 13,000 square feet – the largest in the chain.

At the time the Scheidts obtained their permit, local boards collected and approved applications. Permits were issued on a quota system, with one store allowed in a town or city per 5,000 people. Since then, state law has changed so that a commission in Indianapolis auctions permits off for the entire state.

“Thirty years ago they thought local people were better to choose who got the permits because they knew their fellow citizens,” Scheidt says. “When we applied, we were one of 13 groups. We ended up getting the permit because we were the only ones who filled out all the information correctly.”

At first, Bettie Scheidt ran the store during the day since her husband and sons worked full-time elsewhere. Warren, Don and Virgil divided up the six days of the week the store was opened (Indiana still doesn’t allow sales on Sunday) and worked the evening shifts.

“We each worked two nights a week for many years, until the time when we acquired more stores,” Scheidt says. “We really made it a family business, and we put every dime we made back into the company.”

Unintended Growth

Over the years, Cork has grown through acquisition, as stores in Columbus or surrounding towns became available. More than a few times, the sellers came to Scheidt and asked him to buy them out. Other times, very little persuasion was required.

“There was a fellow in town who owned two stores, and I saw a sign outside his store one day saying he was selling Coke machines,” Scheidt says. “I stopped to chat with him and told him if he ever wanted to sell, I’m always interested in expanding. He told me, ‘I’m ready to sell right now.’” Within a few days, Cork Liquors had two new locations.

Scheidt owns all seven permits for Columbus, which has a population of about 40,000. It took nearly 22 years to collect them all, which he says required patience. In the case of Shelbyville, where all four permitted stores in town are Cork locations, luck was on his side.

“I was out of town and got a call from a retailer in Shelbyville asking me if I’d like to buy his two stores because he wanted to sell,” Scheidt says. “Within a few days we worked out a deal. Less than three months, another guy who owned the other two permits in town asked me to buy his business too. I’d never spoken to him before, so it wasn’t any aggressive marketing on my part. I was just answering the phone.”

Across all 12 locations (there’s one Cork Liquors in Greensburg), Scheidt’s retailing philosophy ties the chain together.

“I’ve always believed that no matter how much you dislike the competition – Kroger, Walmart, all the big guys – there are certain things they do right,” he says. “If you look at beverage retailing, that includes wide aisles, well-lit displays and clean stores.”

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“If you look at beverage retailing, that includes wide aisles, well-lit displays and clean stores,” says Warren Scheidt of what he tries to mirror from the bigger stores.

Cork’s marketing philosophy is to offer competitive pricing and a large selection in every market. While some smaller stores don’t carry every niche product (stores range from 2,800 to 13,000 square feet), each town offers a full range of products across its stores.

“Every area is unique,” Scheidt says. “Columbus is a small town, but every neighborhood is different. When we set up a store in a new market, we have to stock the basics like Bud Light and Jim Beam, but we also begin to sort out what sells and what doesn’t on a store level. There’s no specific product mix – we start tweaking the stocking and it can take up to a year before we get to an ideal mix for the customer base.”

Above all, Cork’s number one strength is location. “My family was in the real estate business, so one of our keys to success is placing stores where they should be,” Scheidt says. “You can’t always compete with CVS for the best locations, but you can be somewhere with good access and an attractive building. For example, Shelbyville is divided into quarters by two highways that run north to south and east to west, so we’re trying to get a store into each quarter of town, near the highway exits.”

“It’s taken five years to get the location we wanted for a store we’re building now (to open by July),” he adds. “It takes patience, but the old saying is correct: it’s all about location, location, location.”

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