Yankee Wine & Spirits has been under new ownership for seven months and already much has changed. The Newtown, Connecticut-based business now sports a more-inviting interior, plus an expanded focus on craft beer and digital platforms. This is the vision-turned-reality of new owner Chris Ciskey (picture above, center).
Ciskey had worked at the store for eight years, including four as manager, before buying out the prior owners in September.
“It’s a business I love,” he says. “It was a natural move. I actually met my wife here when we were both employees, so I have a lot of history here.”
With so much invested in Yankee Wine & Spirits, Ciskey wasted little time after taking over before implementing upgrades. He immediately began a significant overhaul of the store’s physical and digital presences.
His changes also included a new name. The store had been known as Yankee Discount Wine & Spirits. Removal of one word erased any doubt that this location catered to today’s consumer of premium craft alcohol. “We’re not a discount store,” Ciskey says.
Bring on the Beer
Yankee’s new owner always specialized in craft beer. Ciskey first gained deep interest in the category after a 2002 trip to Cooperstown, New York, and the nearby Ommegang craft brewery. When he took over at Yankee Wine & Spirits, he prioritized improving the craft beer selection.
“It’s easily doubled now,” he explains, “though the space has stayed the same. We’ve just maximized it.” Sure enough, the shelves of the craft beer aisle are packed tight.
Customers who walk into the store are greeted by the mix-six display. It’s a newer program that has found success. “Today’s beer drinker has tasting ADD,” Ciskey says. “They want to try new stuff without committing to a 4- or 6-pack.”
Most stores by now offer mix-six options. Some retailers allow customers to pick singles for these out of any available 6-packs, but Yankee doesn’t. It makes for an “inventory nightmare,” Ciskey says, as there will be 6-packs missing a single — becoming 5-packs — throughout the beer section.
“And we’re big on aesthetics here,” he adds.
The store is also big on IPAs and local breweries, both of which are top sellers. Ciskey believes that the country’s ongoing IPA craze is particularly strong in New England. He has had trouble keeping certain regional breweries in stock, like New York’s newly opened SingleCut. “It’s flying off the shelves,” Ciskey reports.
On the opposite end of the sales spectrum, bombers have fallen out of favor among customers. Although certain popular bottles still sell well, like the Stone Brewing Enjoy By series, overall “bombers are dying,” Ciskey says.
Rather than a 22-ounce bomber, customers and brewers alike prefer their premium beers in 4-packs. “It’s now all about the 16-ounce bottle,” Ciskey explains. A walk down his beer aisle tells all: bombers from years past still sit on the shelves.
Focusing on premium brews creates another dilemma faced by Yankee Wine & Spirits and all beer retailers: how to handle the hardest-to-find products — like Sip of Sunshine, Heady Topper, G-Bot or Kentucky Bourbon Stout — that come in limited quantities despite great demand.
Yankee Wine & Spirits gives all customers equal opportunity. When a case of highly sought-after beer arrives, the store will post notice onto its social media pages. This gives every follower a fair chance at purchase — in limited amounts, of course — before supply runs out (and it promotes the store’s social presence).
Bigger or Brighter?
Yankee Wine & Spirits looked a lot different one year ago. The store had dark-colored walls, carpeting and outdated tiles in the beer section. After Ciskey took over in September, he immediately went to work brightening the interior.
Before the month was out, he and his team had repainted the walls, turning what had been a dark store into a brighter experience for shoppers. Then in October, up came the carpet and tiles, and down went a wood-paneling vinyl floor.
Ciskey and his team worked in 14-hour shifts to get everything done as quickly as possible. They kept one half of the store open while the other half was undergoing renovations. The extra efforts paid off – the makeover took just four days. And during that time, Yankee Wine & Spirits was closed for only seven hours of business.
“We did everything we could to accommodate our customers as best we could,” Ciskey recalls.
The overhaul included a reorganized layout. Racks were backed off from the front of the store, which opened up space and made the area more efficient. This has already paid dividends, as Ciskey has begun using the space for monthly wine classes. And a table in the front space offers grab-and-go alcohol baskets and packs for customers who need a quick gift.
Between the expanded open space in the front and the brighter look overall, “everyone thinks it’s gotten bigger in here,” Ciskey says. “It’s made a real big difference. People have asked us if we expanded.”