Evolution, challenges and competition are a part of virtually every industry. For independent beverage retailers, however, the tides seem to shift especially quickly. Many retailers struggle to stay competitive in markets that have become overly saturated. Keeping up with new products, technology trends and ever-changing laws and regulations puts even more pressure on these business owners.
Imagine what it would be like to have a peer support group comprised of other retailers who are at the top of their games, face the same challenges as you, and are willing to swap stories and share best practices—without worrying about spilling vital trade secrets.
Founded in 1948, the Wine & Spirits Guild of America was created by a small group of six independent, family-operated business owners who thought it would be a good idea to get together regularly and discuss industry trends.
Their idea was a successful one; the Guild grew exponentially over the years and is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2018, proving that its structure for supporting its member retailers remains sustainable year after year.
A Foundation of Excellence
Back when the Guild was originally formed, its core purpose was to serve as a forum for independent retailers to socialize and share information. In the beginning, many of the retailers were concentrated in the spirits industry, but as years passed and wine continued gaining momentum across the country, that category eventually became equally important to members. Early on, the Guild meetings included black-tie dinners and other social functions. While camaraderie and networking is still a big part of the organization, the central focus has shifted over the years to become more concentrated on education and information-sharing.
Traditionally, the Guild has two key events per year held at various locations across the country. Meetings are usually held in different members’ markets, giving retailers the opportunity to visit each others’ stores in addition to attending conference-style meetings.
Hal Gershman of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops remembers when the Guild traveled to Grand Forks, North Dakota years ago and visited his store. “The ability to have other people challenge you is so important,” Gershman says. “I find that when you’re kind of in your own bubble, you can become ‘store blind.’ Being with a group that will help you evaluate your store critically is so helpful. I couldn’t wait for the chance to have people come in and give me feedback on what could be improved. Hopefully the Guild members also learned something from us.”
Along with visiting each other’s stores during the biannual gatherings, Guild members also give presentations, get educated on new industry trends and engage in best practices conversations. Guest speakers are often invited to present at the meetings as well, ranging from wine representatives to vendors who demonstrate new point of sale (POS) solutions.
True to its roots, preferred speakers are typically those who come from small independent suppliers or generational wineries. Wine pairing dinners and tastings are almost always on the agenda, adding to the overall educational value of the meetings. Occasionally the Guild will organize additional excursions to various wine regions around the world. Past trips include visits to Spain, Italy, Argentina, France, Portugal and Australia. Between meetings, Guild members regularly connect via e-mail and conference calls to share industry news and ask each other for advice.
In recent years, the Guild has also spent considerable effort focusing on product development and distribution rights. At one point in its history, the Guild’s member stores were the sole distributors of Robert Mondavi wines in the United States, and had similar agreements with other brands that went on to become top national producers. The organization also partners with wineries and distilleries to launch new products that are offered exclusively at Guild member stores.
“In our store alone, we have 250 bottles that the Guild made deals to buy that you can’t get through a national distributor,” says Ron Vaughn of Argonaut Liquor in Colorado. “The Guild is collectively one of the top 40 retailers in the country, so our buying power is pretty significant. It allows us to stand more on our own and not be as beholden to suppliers. Plus, you really have to invest in creating and developing your own brands to stay ahead of the curve. The Guild has strong relationships with so many wineries and we’ve partnered with them to create a variety of exclusive products. This adds enormous value to our members, and our customers really like it.”
Jack Farrell, of Haskell’s in Minnesota, stresses that the Guild has also served as a great partner for distributors.
“A lot of brands got their start by signing with the Guild because almost every original Guild member was the leader in his or her market,” Farrell says. “Now we’re continuing that work and building brands nationally.”
Philanthropy is also an important part of Guild membership, as all members are expected to be involved in and give back to their respective communities. In 2017, the Guild rallied to support industry peers who were affected by torrential flooding in Houston and destructive wildfires in the Napa/Sonoma Valleys. Members donated funds and the Guild matched them, resulting in more than $40,000 donated to relief efforts for both disaster areas.
While the Guild isn’t a legislative trade association, its members are very concerned about legal and regulatory issues facing the beverage alcohol industry. David Jabour, of Twin Liquors in Texas, currently serves as the Guild’s vice president and is also a board member of the American Beverage Licensees (ABL), which represents more than 15,000 licensees across the country. He makes it a point to share the latest legislative issues with his fellow Guild members throughout the year to keep everyone informed.
“The issues we focus on with the ABL impact independent retailers greatly,” Jabour says. “Every member of the Guild is also a member of the ABL, and several other Guild members serve on the ABL board with me. We are all very involved in legislative issues, and we always discuss the latest issues at the Guild meetings and talk about different things that are happening at the state level.”
Being part of the Guild is exclusive in itself, given that the organization prides itself on being composed of the top leaders in the industry. Membership is by invitation only, though interested retailers may apply for consideration. Currently, the Guild has 38 members, with three additional retailers expected to be approved for membership at the upcoming fall meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.
The members themselves are extremely diverse. Some own nearly 100 stores while some operate a single retail location. Some members have been part of the Guild for decades, and in many cases multiple generations from the same family-owned business participate in Guild activities. Guild members collectively operate more than 500 stores and accumulate more than $2 billion in annual sales—they truly are the leaders of the independent beverage retail industry.
The Guild offers many benefits, but the value of sharing best practices with one another is hands-down what its members appreciate most. One of the most unique aspects of the Guild is that it allows retailers to learn from and bounce ideas off one another on a regular basis. This concept of information sharing isn’t one that comes naturally to retailers: due to the competitive nature of today’s marketplace, giving away your trade secrets can appear to be the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. However, the Guild is set up in such a way that location is a primary criteria of membership, ensuring that none of the member retailers come from competing markets.
“Having shared best practices doesn’t work if you’re too close,” says Gary Fisch, the Guild’s current president and owner of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in New Jersey. “I couldn’t have these kinds of conversations with other retailers in my state. But when you’re doing this with people from across the country, it’s great.”
Participating in the Guild allows all members to learn from each other, but it’s especially valuable for those individuals who are newer to the industry and looking to gain more experience. Charles Sonnenberg, of Frugal MacDoogal in Tennessee and South Carolina, recalls feeling a bit intimidated by the other members’ success when he initially joined the Guild, but he credits the group as being one of the best experiences he’s had in his 35 years in the industry.
“When I was first introduced to the Guild, I was just a young man starting out,” Sonnenberg recalls. “Many of the more seasoned members were very generous with their time and advice. It’s a really unique aspect of our business. We are all in the hospitality industry and truly enjoy going through all of this together.”
One former Guild member especially stands out to Sonnenberg: the late Burt Notarius of Premier Wine & Spirits.
“Burt was so innovative, always pushing the boundaries with consumers and technology,” Sonnenberg says. “He had a great sense of what the customer wanted, and he was always willing to share his experiences with me, his successes and failures, and help me in any way that he could. That’s just one example of the kind of lifelong relationships that develop through the Guild.”
Cedric Martin, of Martin’s Wine Cellar in Louisiana, recalls how his father joined the Guild in 1961.
“It was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to our business,” Martin says. “Living in the Louisiana peninsula kind of isolates you from the rest of the country. The Guild gave my dad a great way to get good ideas from very smart people from all over the country. When I joined the business in the ‘70s, he told me that the best thing I could ever do was to go to a Guild meeting because even if you came away with one good idea, it would help you grow your business.”
Gershman echos Martin’s sentiments. He’s been a Guild member since 1983 and says the group has had an enormously positive impact on his business.
“Being in North Dakota, it was very hard to get cutting-edge information about what was happening in the industry,” Gershman recalls. “I traveled to New York for business and met someone in the industry who suggested I apply to the Guild, and I did right away. It’s been an incredible experience for me.”
Bob Selby, of Kappy’s Fine Wine & Spirits in Massachusetts, has been a Guild member for 45 years. He recalls how, when he joined, people didn’t have cell phones or computers, giving retailers no easy way of communicating with each other. The Guild meetings were extremely valuable to him then, and continue to be now.
“Every market has similarities and differences, and the Guild members have a national panel of experienced people to bounce ideas off of at any time,” Selby says. “If I have a question about anything, from employee handbooks to flooring for a new store, I can send out an e-mail to 40 or so of the top companies in this business and get all kinds of feedback. You can look things up on the Internet now, but nothing beats talking to people you know and trust.”
Technology is an area of focus for the Guild that is constantly a priority at meetings and during other networking that happens throughout the year. With technology always evolving, retailers struggle to stay on top of the latest trends and determine which technological solutions make the most sense for their businesses.
“Some Guild members may not have a Chief Technology Officer in place at their stores or be really good at technology in general, but they can get support from other retailers that are more skilled in that area,” Jabour says. “And those Guild members who are technology experts probably aren’t experts in some other area, so they can get support for those issues from other members. It helps us because we don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Whatever you’re going through, chances are that multiple Guild members have gone through it before or are going through it right now.”
Friendships have evolved among many of the Guild members over the years, which is another benefit of the organization. Some of the members have known and worked with one another for more than 40 years. In addition to developing lasting professional relationships, many of them have fostered close personal relationships as well. Farrell notes that he met his best friend through the Guild, and the two men have traveled extensively throughout the world together, visiting different wine-producing regions.
“By far, the biggest benefit of the Guild is meeting people who are in the same business all over the country and are dealing with the same problems,” Farrell says. “It’s a great group of people who are very helpful and giving, and we also know how to have a lot of fun.”
Looking to the Future
If best practices are the top value Guild members take away from participating in their organization, the issue that remains top of mind to everyone when looking to the future is relevance. The off-premise industry is a constantly changing landscape. Guild members are uniquely positioned in that they currently maintain a large national market share, but they also know not to take that designation for granted. Maintaining collective buying power, staying on top of new product and technology trends, and designing new ways to compete with big-box stores are all priorities now and will remain so in the future.
“When I first joined the Guild, our members were all the largest players in their respective markets and could pretty much determine their own destiny,” Sonnenberg says. “Many of us aren’t in that position anymore, and we can never stop thinking ahead. We always need to be planning for what’s next.”
To assist with future planning, the Guild takes a very thoughtful approach to the organization of its leadership. Succession planning is a priority for the Guild, and its leadership is structured in a way that allows for smooth transitions. Each president serves a three-year term and is supported by a first vice president and a second vice president. When the president’s term is up, he or she is succeeded by the first vice president, and the second vice president moves into the first vice president’s role.
At press time, Guild leadership was uncertain of how the organization will officially commemorate its 70th year. Planning is in process, but the group’s core focus remains on best practices and staying on top of the industry. This is indicative of why the Guild has remained so effective and relevant over the years, and will certainly continue to do so for many years to come.
“The Guild was established by wine and spirits leaders in the United States, and that trend continues today,” Farrell says. “Our members are leaders in their communities and they are certainly leaders in this industry.”
Melissa Sherwin is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist from Chicago, IL. Her work has appeared in Chicago’s Daily Herald newspaper, Time Out Chicago, Suburban Life newspapers, and various magazines. She is also the author of several children’s books. Follow her @MelissaNSherwin. Read her recent piece The Guiding Principles that Keep Crown Liquors Competitive.