That evolution will continue as Josh Wesson, who co-founded Best Cellars and who has adapted the concept for A&P, and Christian Haub, the supermarket chain’s chairman, continue to focus on wine, beer and spirits as a strategic asset. A&P is using Best Cellars as the foundation of a larger strategy to entice consumers who want to enjoy a gourmet lifestyle on a reasonable budget.
Connecticut’s first Best Cellars debuted in the affluent community of Greenwich, which is located about 15 miles from the New York City border among the upscale suburban communities on the Long Island Sound.
Best Cellars at A&P still is a work-in-progress and one designed to be flexible. The Greenwich unit, at about 2,000 square feet, is the smallest of the three open so far and only a quarter of the size of the largest, which operates in Westwood, N.J., but it carries almost as much wine as its larger siblings because of modifications in how the wine is presented. More critically, its wine selection is 50% greater than that of the A&P liquor store it replaced, with vintages from six additional countries.
The expanded wine selection at the Greenwich store was developed to suit the local community, but it also accommodates present economic conditions, which are enough to make most anyone a little price-conscious. ‘Because it’s a well-to-do community,’ Wesson said, ‘we increased the number of premium wines we offer, but we still kept an eye on value with many of our premium wines priced under $25. They are affordable luxuries.’
The more expensive class of wine at Greenwich is merchandised by place of origin in a departure from the Best Cellars standard, a change that is based on extensive customer research A&P has conducted since its first version of the concept opened this summer.
Best Cellars at A&P has continued to evolve through the opening of the first two operations in Westwood and West Orange, N.J., and over the period since the November 2007 announcement that the supermarket operator had purchased the independent wine retailer. Best Cellars still operates seven stores in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington, DC, that are not associated with A&P supermarket operations. As part of the purchase, Wesson joined A&P as senior director of beer, wine and spirits.
In his current role, Wesson is directing the remerchandising of A&P’s independent liquor stores, which often operate adjacent to the supermarkets although, because of local laws, in separate storefronts usually but not always contiguous to the food retail operation. The Greenwich Best Cellars, for instance is several doors down from an A&P in the same shopping center.
Adapting Merchandising Strategies to Beer & Spirits
The A&P affiliated units in Westwood, West Orange and Greenwich derive from the original Best Cellars concept, but adapt the wine retailer’s merchandising strategies to beer and spirits as well.
In all Best Cellars operations, flavor and related characteristics are the organizational principle behind product merchandising. Rather than an appellation or varietal designation, Best Cellars at A&P stores continue the practice originated at the independent shops ‘ merchandising wine under colorful banners that read fizzy, soft, luscious, juicy, smooth, big, sweet and, as the sign reads in the Greenwich unit, ‘Fresh,’ with the subheading, ‘light-bodied white wines clean, lipsmacking, thirst quenching.’
Wine is racked in fixtures below the banners so consumers can use the information provided to make informed purchasing decisions even if they don’t have the benefit of a traditional wine education.
The addition of beer and spirits operations is the most obvious example of Best Cellars evolution in the A&P environment. Although the execution is unique for each class of beverage, the idea ultimately is to help consumers chose a product based on what they might enjoy in consumption rather than on what they might already know or fear they do not.
Spirits, for example, is sold from wall wracks behind signage that informs of how the product was distilled, provides a list of popular drinks that are made with the particular spirit and includes a short historical or amusing reference. Beer at Greenwich is available from two cold cases in a back alcove under black and white signage that include popular, import and craft brews with a little wine mixed in. Fronting the cold cases is a floor display under a maroon sign declaring: ‘Specialty beer (craft and imported beers).’
The floor fixture carries a color-coded flavor key that applies the designations zesty, robust, crisp, mellow and seasonal to craft and specialty beer. Flavor-oriented subtitles explain that zesty means a beer delivers ‘snappy cracklin’ pop’ flavor while seasonal suggests ‘spicy, festive and flavorful.’
Christian Haub, who is German by birth, takes a particular interest in promoting the flavor profile of beer and putting it into a food context. He hopes more of A&P’s American shoppers will learn to enjoy beer with meals and not in isolation from them.
‘So many people don’t understand that certain beers go with certain foods,’ he said. ‘With the advent of microbreweries, though, things began to change. Hopefully, we can do more to educate them about beer and food.’
Linking Food and Adult Beverages
The inclusion of beer and spirits isn’t the only departure Best Cellars at A&P takes from the original stores. One of the major strategic goals of incorporating Best Cellars into A&P is to link food and adult beverages and increase cross shopping between supermarkets and their companion beverage alcohol stores. Best Cellars originally focused on good but relatively inexpensive wines to promote moderate everyday consumption. A&P takes it a step further by promoting the link, incorporating, in one example, specialized stand-alone displays that include wines picked to accompany cheese, meat and other foods, along with recipes and accessory products.
While establishing pairings between wine and take out food of various sorts can’t be as exacting as some traditional oenophiles might prefer, the effort points back to the idea Wesson applied to the original Best Cellars stores, that wine can be accessible and fun for everyone.
Still, the Greenwich Best Cellars at A&P departs from its New Jersey precursors in several ways and not all have to do with store size.
A display of the most popular selling wine offered at Greenwich is different than those mounted at the other Best Cellars at A&P units, which offered displays of best-selling wine under several separate varietal designations. Greenwich reorganizes popular wines into a single display so that consumers can readily compare wines that are proving broadly popular.
At Greenwich, Best Cellars also is trying out a dedicated sake presentation. ‘Sake has seen significant growth,’ Wesson said. ‘It’s not a huge business but there is a customer willing to spend money on it. This is the smallest store but it has the biggest sake display. As we go, we will be getting into artisanal and craft sake.’
The Greenwich store also reinstated the original Best Cellars practice of daily wine tastings that had been scaled back in the A&P version. The store also added, based on Best Cellars customer suggestions, a chalkboard to post events. ‘We wanted to give people the sense they had joined a community,’ Wesson said.
The newest unit even offers an expanded assortment of accessories. The first two Best Cellars at A&P locations offered extensive and conspicuous displays of Riedel glassware, but customers said they would like to see some less expensive items more consistent with everyday consumption, so the store includes a value assortment in addition to the upscale stemware.
The acquisition of Best Cellars already is having a material impact on A&P. In its quarterly filing for the period ended June 14, A&P reported that a $5.8 million, or 8.6%, increase in the segment covering non-supermarket formats was substantially driven by the acquisition of Best Cellars. The company is looking for more help from the concept down the road.
‘Best Cellars’ innovative marketing approach has transformed the company’s freestanding beer, wine and spirits operations, in addition to providing an opportunity for us to leverage the food and wine connection,’ Haub said in summing up the strategy behind the Best Cellars initiative. ‘We are very excited about this new concept’¦. Additionally, we are looking forward to introducing our in-store concept, which comes at the most apropos time, as our economic environment continues to challenge consumers. Our in-store merchandising program will enable shoppers to effectively pair their foods and wines as they dine and host more in their homes.’