George’s Liquor has grown into a significant presence in its local community.
The 10,000-square-foot warehouse store in Newport, Arkansas — which features a diverse, 18,000-SKU selection — began as a much-smaller shop in 1972. That year, eponymous founder George Rasch opened a store in downtown Newport. Since, Rasch’s concept has gone through three buildings and five owners. It changed ownership in 1974, ’78, ’80 and finally again in 1983, when the store was bought by current owner, Connie Waters.
In 2005, Waters moved the store from a 1,000-square-foot location to its existing building that’s ten times the size. The staff now numbers around 15 on average. As George’s increased in size, so too did the store add on special offerings, traditions and programs that have allowed the Arkansas retailer to excel.
Focused on Customers
George’s operates in Jackson County, an agricultural area with about 17,000 residents. Competition for customers is tight, especially because local Big Box stores and chain pharmacies can now carry beer and wine.
When Waters first entered the alcohol retail business decades ago, Newport contained more of the smaller shops like the original George’s. Then local laws changed about 10 to 15 years ago, broadening the alcohol options that name-brand chains could carry. Mom-and-pop shops were in danger. Waters faced a dilemma. She could get out before the Big Box competition took its toll — or expand, and compete with everybody.
Waters went with the latter. This is how George’s ended up with its current, larger footprint. And with the increased size came the ability to purchase product at greater quantity, and thus at better deals for both Waters and her customers.
“With the bigger-name products, we try to never miss a spot deal,” Waters says. “Every time it’s on, we try to buy it. We want to give all our customers really good deals while competing with the Big Box stores.”
The floor space allows George’s to offer 30-packs by the pallet, deliverable by an electric floor jack. It’s convenient all around.
In addition to the larger size, Waters has also instilled a dedication towards customer service that has helped differentiate her store from others.
For example: George’s carryout policy. “We ask every customer whether they want their purchase carried out to their car,” Waters explains. “It doesn’t matter if they’re buying a six-pack, or a load of 30-racks.”
“We really try to build our business on great service,” she adds.
That includes the speedier option of drive-thru purchases. The location that George’s moved into in 2005 came with a drive-through built off its side. Given the choice between knocking it down, versus keeping the unusual feature, Waters put a nice awning over the drive-thru, and turned the area into an asset.
“It’s very convenient,” says General Manager Tyler Jackson. “It allows customers to fly through and pick up what they want. There’s constantly people there. Especially people who are in a hurry and heading to an event.”
An employee is always working the window. Which speaks to the broader goal of consistent customer service at George’s. Store hours are from 7 a.m. to midnight. No matter what time a customer arrives during those hours, they will find a manager on-site.
“That rule has been in place for many years,” Waters explains. “I hold the manager accountable for everything that goes on. I don’t go to the other employees; I go to the manager for answers.”
Other amenities that help keep customers happy include four big-screen TVs hung throughout the store. During big Arkansas football games, George’s plays audio from the televisions over the loudspeakers, so that nobody has to miss a minute of the action.
The business also boasts a large parking lot with plenty of space. This is important, because many customers swing through George’s on their way to the nearby Greers Ferry Lake, or the White River, pulling into the parking lot with their travel camper, or boat in tow.
George’s hosts food trucks in its lot, co-promoting the trucks’ presence on social media. “I like to have a food option for our customers,” says Waters. “I like to give people the biggest bang for their buck when they come to George’s.”
The customer base at George’s includes about 30 private clubs and on-premise operators in the area, who purchase product from the retail shop. George’s truly prides itself on this side of the business.
One way the store has fostered these sales is through the customer service of flexibility. “We don’t limit the clubs to any time that they have to order or pickup,” Jackson explains. “If they put an order in at 11 p.m., and want to pick it up at 7 a.m. the next day, then we have to be ready for them at those times.”
Staff training includes an emphasis on this service. Clubs purchase product from George’s nearly every day. In the back-end of the store, you will almost always see a club order waiting for pickup.
This includes everything from specialty items to larger-than-usual orders of core products like Bud Light for big on-premise events. “We try to get them whatever they need, when they need it,” Jackson says.
This relationship has the extra benefit of expanding George’s ability to buy more in bulk for better deals. On the opposite end of the spectrum, George’s will also try to get their special barrel-select bottles into the clubs as a cross-promotion.
“We’ll educate the clubs about these products,” says Jackson, “because they’ll then educate their customers, who will then want to come in here and buy that special bottle that they had before.”
George’s is located about an hour and 20 minutes northeast of Little Rock, home of one of Arkansas’ top craft breweries: Lost 40 Brewing. Little Rock also contains other popular microbrewers, such as Diamond Bear Brewing Co. While craft beer overall is down at George’s, the continued success of regional producers like Lost 40 and Diamond Bear is a reminder that local still sells well.
“We always try to incorporate that local atmosphere as much as possible here,” Jackson says. “We always try to get people to shop local. Our customers think it’s the coolest thing.”
In the back of the store — drawing customers deeper inside — is where George’s has set up their Arkansas section. “We highlight this as a feature of our store,” Jackson says. “We’re always taking people back there.”
Beyond the top-selling brews of Lost 40 and Diamond Bear, this area of the store also includes locally made spirits. Rock Town Distillery’s vodka is a popular item, as is this Little Rock producer’s array of bourbons and ryes.
These products are another opportunity for George’s to maximize the club side of their business. “We try to make sure that Lost 40 is in every club,” says Jackson. “We really bring the local scene.”
Beer and Spirits Trends
Other than Rock Town Vodka, George’s — like most retailers nowadays — sells quite a lot of Tito’s. “It’s blown out of the water for us,” Jackson says. (According to Beverage Information and Insights, this magazine’s research and data sister company, Tito’s is on pace to surpass Smirnoff in the next couple of years as the top-selling spirit brand in America.)
George’s has also become a destination for whiskey-lovers. The brown-spirits boom is nationwide, and whiskey hunters now know to stop in the Newport store to see what rarities might be in stock.
“We have a specialty section for these products upstairs,” says Waters. “We always try our hardest to get Pappy Van Winkle and other hard-to-find stuff. If it’s available to us, we try to get as much as we can. People come in and ask about Blanton’s and we take them upstairs and show them our room. There’s a huge bourbon market around here.”
That includes the many people who visit the Newport area for hunting season. Bourbon is a common purchase for this portion of the George’s clientele, Jackson says. “They go crazy for it.”
Other craft whiskey brands that are currently hot include Elijah Craig, Four Roses and Maker’s Mark. “We do really well with a lot of bourbons,” Jackson says.
Jim Beam remains as popular as ever. “We sell so much Jim Beam that I was looking the other day in our system and it’s our overall number-one brand,” Jackson reports.
Unlike the spike in interest for brown spirits, craft beer at George’s has cooled off a little bit in recent time. The store still boasts a wide variety of brew SKUs, but overall they are not moving as fast as they did during the heyday of the craft craze some years ago.
Jackson believes this slowdown is due, in part, to the beer scene becoming oversaturated. Given such a surplus of options, today’s consumers — instead of experimenting wildly like they used to — have instead reverted back to what craft beer they already know and love.
This hypothesis is reflected by the mix-six section at George’s. What was once an area of the store with better sales has turned into a slower section. Instead of buying different brands and styles, Jackson sees customers sticking with what’s familiar — and what’s local. Around Newport, that typically means Lost 40.
What’s Hot in Wine
To help boost midweek sales, George’s hosts Wine Wednesdays. All wine bottles are 15% off. The store holds tastings from its mobile cart on these nights, as well as on Friday and Saturday evenings.
“We really try to inform people about the products that they are drinking instead of them just swigging it down,” Jackson says.
This education can go a long way towards turning someone into a repeat wine buyer. Many people begin by drinking the cheaper stuff, Jackson says, before graduating up to the drier, bolder wines.
Consumer education at George’s includes understanding the differences of terroir and location, along with distinguishing flavors on your taste buds. Staff at George’s sample out the good wines, so that customers can learn what styles are truly supposed to taste like.
“With younger customers, I see a lot of them start this learning process with moscato, riesling and white zinfandel — the sweeter wines — and then they start trying reds and red blends,” Jackson says.
George’s has a 2,000-square-foot wine room in the back. This space contains about 900 wines, brick floors, recessed lighting and wooden shelving for the bottles. “We’ve really been trying to grow the wine market in our community,” Waters says.
Changes in local law have allowed Big Box stores to carry wine. “That’s why we do the tastings and education and carry out, because they don’t do that,” Waters explains. “And they don’t buy big quantity. We buy big quantity, and price accordingly.”
Rosé remains huge at Georges, while winter will bring its usual uptick in sales of red wines. For that style, Jackson reports strong interest in Spanish wine, Argentinian malbec and bottles from Australia and Washington State.
He also sees that customers have become interested in the newer trend of bourbon barrel-aged wines. Brands like Beringer Brothers and Robert Mondavi Private Selection, “People are really liking them,” Jackson says.
“I’m seeing a migration more towards craft wine,” he adds, “which I think is just awesome.”
A Part of the Community
George’s puts together wine orders for events hosted by big companies in the area, and will also aid with wedding planning. “Just tell us how many people and the items you’ll be wanting, and we’ll get it mapped out to pick up,” Jackson says.
This is part of George’s involvement in the local community. Jackson himself is a member of the area’s Rotary club, while Waters is involved with the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. The store sponsors the annual Depot Days Festival, which showcases local musical talent, along with other county events. And the business gives to the local football boosters program.
It all builds into the store’s well-regarded role in Jackson County, an agricultural area where so much of life revolves around whatever is local.
“Where we are, farming is king,” Waters explains. “We’ve withstood a lot of agricultural changes in our area. We’re very proud around here of our heritage, our resilience to change. We persevere.”
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Interview: Drizly Co-Founder Cory Rellas on Alcohol Ecommerce in 2019-20.