Editor’s Note: This content is an extension of a profile that appeared in the “Generations” supplement in the January/February issue. It is not meant to be a standalone story.
Hi-Time was once the only game in town. Now there’s Costco, Total Wine & More and others who keep the family on its toes. “At Costco, something may be $10 cheaper, and we are selling for 5 or 8 percent over cost,” Hirst says. “But they might carry one or two of a supplier’s brands, whereas we can carry their whole line. It’s a constant fight. As long as we can stay close to Costco or Total Wine in price, customers will shop here.”
In 2008, when California’s real estate and construction markets were pummeled during the recession, Hi-Time’s sales hit a speed bump. “We began to advertise value wines,” says Hirst, who has been general manager for about a dozen years. “Being in an affluent area, we rode it out pretty well, but companies stopped giving holiday gifts, and people weren’t having as many parties.” As a point of reference, Chuck says his first house in the area—two blocks from the store—was $14,000 in 1955. “I couldn’t afford it then,” he laughs, “and now, across the street, a home sold for close to $2 million”
Hirst says smart money management and very little debt helped the company stay afloat until things began looking up. Other trends – like the resurgence in spirits, craft cocktails, and craft beer – have helped boost Hi-Time’s traffic, as well as the 12 to 15 percent of its sales that now occur online.
“We are still a destination store, though,” Hirst says, “so people will call about something and still come in.” Online, she adds, there are frustrating but understandable restrictions. Someone always has to be home to receive the order and they must show ID. As of this writing, Hirst says Hi-Time can only ship to 20-something states, “and it’s always changing.”
For Hi-Time, remaining a destination store amid competition from chains has been all about maintaining great relationships with suppliers and distributors.
“We have a rapport with small wineries,” Chuck says, “and they sell only to us. We sell it at a great price, but know that if we discount it further, they won’t sell to us anymore.” For all its well-priced offerings, however, Hi-Time can still give you sticker shock. Sometimes, Chuck’s even shocked by the prices in his store—like the bottle of tequila it sells for $1,000.
Hi-Time is proud to help several small brands gain exposure, Hirst says. “We will say yes to a small tequila brand and give them a chance, where it would be harder for them to get into a big chain store,” she says. Some manufacturers have even linked to Hi-Time on their websites for hard-to-get items. “We keep smaller things in stock that other stores wouldn’t bother to carry.”
Being a family-run business with a longstanding reputation the community, Hi-Time is extra careful about the outside hires it makes—especially in the wine department, where Chuck says 1 in 25 employees land after starting in the delivery department.
“If you’re not courteous to the customer, you’re done,” Chuck says. Customers will often come in asking for a certain person in the wine department, who knows their tastes and will set something aside for them, Hirst says.
Knowledgeable staff doing the little things for customers keeps Hi-Time at the top of the list for area shoppers, Hirst says. And because Hirst doesn’t ever want anybody waiting in line, the store has 12 cash registers.