Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, our 2021 Retailer of the Year, has been a beverage destination in New Jersey for more than three decades.
The business offers a sophisticated curation of wine and other products, coupled with the personal touches that only a family-owned and -operated business can provide.
At the end of 2019, the idea of developing a West Coast presence in the heart of Napa Valley seemed like an ideal next step. Then Covid-19 hit, turning the beverage industry (and everything else) upside down.
But Gary’s rose to the challenge, effectively demonstrating how both innovation and experience can make all the difference.
Building a Distinctive Brand
Gary Fisch, the company’s founder, originally entered the beverage industry as a liquor salesman. He had an opportunity to purchase a store, then known as Shoppers Discount Liquor/Wine Warehouse, in 1987. The small, 1,200-square-foot store was located in Madison, NJ. Gary quickly expanded its size by taking over retail spaces adjacent to his.
Ultimately, he moved to a nearby, 13,000-square-foot location, which remains one of the four Gary’s stores currently operating in New Jersey.
Gary followed his instincts to identify viable locations and opened several additional stores in rapid succession. As the business grew, so did its product offerings. While the stores were always primarily focused on wine — which is a passion of Gary’s — he decided to offer his customers a more robust set of items, including cheeses, charcuterie and giftware.
The business later changed its name to Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. Located in upscale New Jersey markets of Bernardsville, Closter, Madison and Wayne, each store has a slightly different look and feel, with similar product offerings.
The business also expanded behind the scenes on the operations side when Gary’s son, Michael Fisch, began working alongside his father several years ago. Michael currently serves as the company’s director of innovation, focusing on driving operational efficiencies through the implementation of new technologies and systems.
“I have to say that strategy wasn’t a big part of it, during those early years of expansion,” Gary admits. “It was all driven by emotion and gut: what felt right to me and what I thought would work best for the business. All that changed when Mike came into the picture, though, as he’s much more driven by data and numbers.”
Both emotion and strategy came into play when Gary’s made its next big move.
Although the business has been grounded in New Jersey for more than 30 years, Gary always maintained a close connection to the wineries in Napa Valley. He typically visited the region several times per year, establishing close relationships with various area winemakers and business owners.
In early 2019, while on one of his regular trips, Gary visited a well-known retailer in St. Helena, CA, that he’d patronized many times over the years. The store was in a great location and had always been a destination spot for Gary, who enjoyed the wine selection as well as the various food offerings. The store had a great deal of business potential but was struggling at the corporate level.
Upon a return trip with his wife, Liz, a few months later, Gary connected with the property’s landlord and ended up signing a lease in July.
Very quickly, Gary’s became a national brand, opening its 10,000-square-foot St. Helena location in the heart of Napa Valley in October 2019.
Distinctively different from the New Jersey locations, the California store dedicates about one-third of its space to wine. The Napa location also offers freshly prepared foods, coffee, giftware and a wide range of gourmet items, including cheese and charcuterie.
“The idea was to maintain the footprint that was in place after the store that was originally based at this location closed,” Gary explains. “That store was wonderful, and it was such a great addition to the community, which is filled with so many small tasting rooms these days. Gary’s continues that special niche in the neighborhood. The quality of our food rivals that of restaurants, and the mix of products on the wine side is very unique, appealing both to locals and to the thousands of tourists who come from all over the world to visit Napa each year.”
Pivoting During Uncertain Times
The timing of the Napa store opening resulted in a series of unexpected challenges for the business.
Shortly afterwards, a power outage caused Gary’s to close briefly. Then the Kincade fire erupted, devastating the Napa area and delaying the official grand opening celebration until December 2019.
The store then had less than four months before being forced to close to the public due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Without the tourist population, many Napa locals left the area to seek employment elsewhere, making it difficult for Gary’s to remain fully staffed. The store rapidly shifted its focus to ecommerce, capitalizing on its bi-coastal fulfillment capabilities.
The company also developed new programs like virtual wine tastings. Since Covid, Gary’s has hosted more than 1,000 virtual tastings for groups ranging from 10 to 300 participants. The virtual tasting program was a lifeline for the Napa Valley store throughout Covid, and helped solidify Gary’s position as a white glove fulfillment partner for premium clients and corporations alike.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey stores were also impacted by the pandemic, but in a different way.
In mid-March, as the pandemic began to unfold, Gary’s experienced an unprecedented number of customers in its stores. During the week of March 15 – 21, Gary says that “every day was like Christmas Eve.”
Stores were packed. Products flew off the shelves faster than they could be restocked, and the staff had a difficult time controlling the crowds. On March 21, the Fisch family decided to close the New Jersey stores for the safety of their customers and 206 employees, remaining open only for curbside pickup and local delivery.
The pandemic forced Gary’s to pivot and refocus the business. Prior to Covid-19, Michael was finishing his MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania while working with Gary’s on the side. While at school, Michael introduced a business intelligence reporting system, a mobile app, and expanded routing optimization capabilities for local deliveries fulfilled by Gary’s.
His efforts proved to be timely due to the rapid increase in demand for local delivery orders sparked by the pandemic. After the start of the pandemic, Michael accelerated the implementation of an updated website in order to utilize the most sophisticated technology available to help meet the increase in online demand. Gary’s new ecommerce platform is powered by City Hive, and encompasses the inventory of all five store locations.
“Prior to Covid, our app generated several hundred downloads. However, shortly after Covid began, we very quickly hit over 35,000 downloads,” Michael says. “Our online ordering went from generating 12% of our business to 100%, and we were ecommerce only for several months.”
Making the switch to an almost exclusively online business came with its own share of challenges.
In addition to transitioning while updating its ecommerce platform, Gary’s had to identify new ways of meeting the needs of its customers. Customer service greatly changed when the stores were closed to the public. People could no longer come into the stores to shop, so they called and messaged the store much more than they previously had.
The company hired an offsite customer support system focused on bringing the same high level of customer service that the Gary’s in-store experience is known for to online customers. To ensure every customer received a prompt response, the business introduced an online chat feature on its website, a customer support ticketing system to organize guest inquiries, and a new phone system that allowed for an offsite call center.
Throughout the pandemic, Gary’s continued to invest heavily in its ecommerce experience. The company partnered with Onfleet to help manage delivery routing optimization for its local delivery vehicles, allowing customers to view where their delivery orders were in real time. In addition, Gary’s hired a team of sommeliers to help maintain product content, host virtual wine tastings and provide wine recommendations to online customers.
Earlier this year, the company introduced Gary’s Direct, a yearly subscription program modeled after Amazon Prime, allowing customers to receive unlimited free local delivery or national shipping for an annual fee. Gary’s Direct members also receive deeper discounts on Gary’s Direct items, as well as access to online wine classes.
Although all of Gary’s stores have now reopened to the public, Gary’s customers grew accustomed to its frictionless online shopping experience. This resulted in an elevated level of ecommerce sales to date, despite brick-and-mortar sales returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Other Technology Advancements
Beyond changes to its ecommerce system, the Gary’s team recently introduced new technologies and systems across other aspects of the business.
The company implemented Slack for internal messaging. Michael and Gary both believe that the speed of communication, both internally and externally, was key to navigating the rapidly changing environment. The company upgraded its email software from an on-premise Outlook server to cloud-based Microsoft O365, allowing team members to be more productive by taking advantage of the full suite of Microsoft products.
Gary’s also invested in a Microsoft Azure data warehouse to centralize its POS data and allow for seamless integrations to custom apps, including Power BI for custom reporting, as well as a custom shelf talker tool.
“Covid catalyzed the implementation and adoption of technology across our company,” Michael says. “Technology and systems are now ingrained within our company, allowing us to attract and retain employees who are drawn to Gary’s because of our commitment not just to wine and customer service, but also to technology, innovation and operational efficiency.”
Gary credits his son’s innovation with not only helping the business survive, but ultimately thrive after an extremely challenging time.
“If it wasn’t for Mike’s quick thinking and dedication, we would not be in the same place we are today,” Gary said. “I attribute him to saving this company and we’ve come out even better positioned than we were before Covid-19.”
Looking to the Future
The U.S. now appears to be emerging from the worst part of the pandemic. All of the Gary’s locations have resumed business as usual, while having absorbed valuable takeaways and processes during the past year that will remain in place. But what else is next for the business?
In the short term, the focus is on continuing to invest in delighting customers, educating team members and driving efficiencies. The team is currently navigating the reintroduction of its in-store tasting experiences.
Under the direction of Wine Director Brooke Sabel, the team has concentrated on wine training and education for Gary’s team members.
Technology remains an ongoing focus. Gary’s is committed to identifying additional ways in which it can improve operational efficiencies, including a complete upgrade of its accounting system to Sage Intacct, as well as the introduction of a more robust system for reordering inventory. The company is also closely analyzing data from the past several years to make key decisions related to category management, and forecast how trends are likely to evolve as the world continues to reopen.
Through its expanding private-label program, Gary’s benefits from its Napa Valley location and Gary’s long-term relationships with area winemakers, allowing him to source the highest quality grapes for his products. Due to the success of the program, the company plans to expand it to include additional wines and new products, broadening the scope of the Gary’s brand.
“Having a location in Napa Valley puts us at the center of the wine world,” Gary explains. “On any given day, we are building relationships with prominent and up-and-coming winemakers alike, who stop by our store for morning coffee or some Thursday bubbles. We’ve become a national retailer with an opportunity to become a global brand.”
The Fisches haven’t ruled out the possibility of opening additional locations in the future. Both Gary and Michael say that their combined skill set creates a healthy and positive balance. The expanded insights into data and operations management that Michael now brings to the business will help successfully propel them into the future — not that Gary has any plans to retire.
“I get a lot of energy out of talking to guests when they come into the store, and I don’t think I’ll ever give that up,” Gary says. “Retirement for me would be spending even more time in Napa talking with our customers. But that is still a long way off! Right now, I’m helping Mike learn more about the retail end of the business, and I’m learning more about the technology side. But we’re doing it, and we’re only getting better because of it.”
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, How RNDC Built A Legacy of Expertise.