Court Liquors: An Evolution in Retail Variety

Court Liquors new jersey retail profile beverage dynamics magazine article wine beer whiskey
From left: Court Liquors shift supervisor Marcel Rochon, vice president Nicholas Pizzonia, assistant general manager Jesse Rochon and assistant manager Victoria Matveeva.

Court Liquors in Long Branch, NJ, is located at an interesting consumer cross section. A few minutes’ drive away is Monmouth University, with a student enrollment of around 6,000. Or head south, and you soon hit the mansion-lined beaches of Asbury Park. A historic vacation area known for its Tillie mural featured in The Sopranos and a famous Bruce Springsteen poster. Asbury Park has also become a coastal hub for young entrepreneurs; its thriving downtown has a noticeably hip culture.

The result is an eclectic mix of customers at Court Liquors. Celebrities visiting Asbury Park might stop in, along with that area’s traditionally wealthier clientele. Students from the university are also shoppers, along with Long Branch locals.

“Seeing so many different kinds of people makes it more enjoyable,” says Nicholas Pizzonia, Court Liquors vice president. “It makes a more interesting day at work. It’s such an interesting crossroads of people. And it’s something we can build our selection based on. We have to have a good variety. We play into that demo.” 

A History of Success

Court Liquors has a familiar past for many modern-day, successful liquor stores.

This seaside New Jersey mainstay is another liquor store with its roots in grocery. The owners, the Zimmerman family, have operated grocery stores in the Long Branch area for more than a century. In 1977, they acquired a liquor license to open a small shop next door to one of their stores.


Nineteen years later, Michael Zimmerman moved that adjacent store across the lot into what is now the present-day location of Court Liquors. This relocation boosted the shop from 1,000 square feet to 4,600.

“It was a considerable jump up in size,” says Pizzonia, who would join the company the following year, in 1997. “It included a full cooler and increased wine selection.”

Beyond the broader wine variety, the new location also included other common upgrades that helped move forward the alcohol retail industry in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Namely: better décor and lighting. All of which helped make Court Liquors and many similar retailers a more family-friendly environment for modern times.

From its humble origins and ‘90s transformation, the company has not stopped evolving. In 2016, seeking more space, Court Liquors built a warehouse for increased storage and better SKU variety.

“We are always evolving and monitoring current trends and growth areas in the industry,” Pizzonia explains.

Embracing Eco-Conscious at Court Liquors

Perhaps most noticeable about Court Liquors today is how much the retailer focuses on organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines. While healthier, natural products are currently trendy, the store was ahead of the curve when first emphasizing these items around 2006-2007.

Pizzonia was behind the push. “I was very much into food, and developed an interest in food sourcing,” he recalls. “I started looking into the ingredients of products. I didn’t want to consume foods that had been processed. I started being a fanatic about it. I took up gardening as a hobby.”

“From there I shifted my focus and looked at our wine selection,” he adds. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be products out there that nobody knows about yet’. At the time there were a couple of wine brands advertising that they were USD-certified organic. I can remember laughing at that, thinking it was a fad. But I shifted my mindset.”

With his new mindset, Pizzonia began stocking eco/sustainable wines. Today, the store specializes in this subcategory. Around 80% of Court Liquors’ wine SKUs are organic, biodynamic and/or natural brands. Signage throughout the store identifies and explains these products.

This has lined up well with the broader trend of U.S. consumers eating, drinking and living healthier.

“People today want to know what products they’re putting in their bodies,” Pizzonia says. “They also want to know whether those products are being handled responsibly, they want to know the people behind the products. This is not just an agricultural focus but also economic. Consumers want to know how the brands treat the people working there.”

These types of wines are also a possible answer to the top question in the category right now: How can wine attract more Millennials and Gen Z?

“A lot of my sales reps have been bringing that question up,” Pizzonia says. He points to how well organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines performed at Court Liquors during the pandemic. He sees this as a sign of younger LDA customers having interest in the subcategory.

“During the pandemic, many younger consumers — aged 21 to 30 — relocated into the area, coming back home to stay with their parents,” Pizzonia says. “These consumers were going to college, often in larger markets like cities, so they had more exposure to the trendy healthy lifestyle. So they wanted natural, organic and biodynamic wines, with artisanal backgrounds.”

“The pandemic exposed us to this audience in greater numbers,” he adds. “After Covid, as those consumers have gone back to their former lives, our numbers have receded. But we have been able to maintain a good, steady base” of people buying these wines.

Why haven’t more retail stores considered growing their organic, biodynamic and sustainable selection? “I think we can become so focused on the commodity side of this business that we sometimes don’t take a serious look at niche areas like this,” Pizzonia suggests.

Attracting Millennials and Gen Z to Wine

As for getting more younger consumers into wine in general, Pizzonia recommends taking cues from social media. After all, that’s where these generations spend much of their time, where they go to learn.

For instance, he suggests a locally produced TikTok channel, @SuperVinoBros.

“They’re geared toward that younger audience,” he says. “They don’t present themselves as wine experts but as wine enthusiasts. They’re learning alongside their audience. That helps take away the pretention of wine, which I think a lot of younger people have a problem with.”

This learning is critical. “For younger people, there needs to be an ‘aha’ moment for wine as they discover it on their own,” Pizzonia says. “I think a lot of this can happen at wine bars that have become popular in cities and have begun to enter into the suburbs.”

Court Liquors also hosts regular in-store wine tasting classes. Promoted on social media, these events have received a “terrific reaction,” Pizzonia says.

“The classes are somewhere between informal and informative,” he explains. “The classes are about eliminating that pretention that some people see in wine. We bring in suppliers and winemakers so it’s authentic. And it helps us develop a strong customer base.”

All these learning opportunities combined with showcasing eco-conscious wines should hopefully help “demystify the mystique behind wine,” Pizzonia says.

Handling Allocated Whiskeys

Retailers across the country face the same persistent headache these days. What is the best way to handle the huge demand for the small number of trendy bourbons allocated for the store? Or, in other words, what will piss off the fewest people? After all, to quote a famously outspoken member of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association during a recent NABCA conference, these whiskey hunters are “batsh#t crazy!”

Pizzonia would hardly disagree.

“I always want to welcome in customers, but when your intent is solely to get your hands on something with insane secondary value, that’s infuriating,” he says.

Some stores deal with this issue via loyalty programs, lotteries, a.m. drops, “vault” openings and other means meant to reward locals fairly. Nevertheless, allocated bourbon strategies almost always end in drama, with a number of upset customers who air grievances on social media. For the stores, it’s a lot of effort and aggravation over something that barely affects the bottom line.

“Four years ago, I put my hands up and said, ‘I don’t care’,” Pizzonia says. “So now if I get it, I put it on the shelf. If I don’t get it, I don’t care.”

“I don’t run lotteries,” he adds. “It’s total luck of the draw. It relieves a lot of stress for us. I know there are people who follow the release timing on these products to get the upper hand, but I don’t pay much attention to that.”

Like many retailers in this age of booming bourbon secondary, Court Liquors marks up the prices on some of the most sought-after brands.

“I’ll put out Blanton’s as it comes in, and I have it marked up to $105,” Pizzonia says. “So much of this business is a race to the bottom, so I don’t feel guilty making a little money.”

Court Liquors Sticks with Cigars

When Court Liquors first opened in 1996, the store was so committed to cigar sales that the staff included a full-time tobacconist. Also, the business included a cigar lounge.

Times and trends have changed. Many alcohol retailers have scaled back their cigar selection. Tobacconist is no longer a position at Court Liquors. When the store needed more room for storage and office space, they converted the lounge. But that does not mean that they have abandoned that part of the business. 

A walk-in humidor is still part of the sales floor. “We’ve put in the effort to develop a following there,” Pizzonia explains. “We’ve maintained that as a priority. It’s never been about trends for us there. We operate with the simple idea that we’re running a tobacco shop within a retail store. Our customers can feel confident in knowing that the tobacco products are well maintained here.”

“People who smoke cigars, they stick with the places they know are tried and true,” he adds. “They will continue to support their favorite cigar retailers.”

Whiskey drinkers are common customers. “Whiskey clientele have the same mindset,” Pizzonia says. “They like smoking nice cigars while enjoying a good whiskey.”

To maintain a top variety of SKUs, Court Liquors works with a lot of boutique vendors along with category stalwarts.

Evolving with Craft Beer

Employed at the store since 1997, Pizzonia was around for the first wave of craft beer that took place during that decade. “Back then, the push came from Pete’s Wicked, Sam Adams, Anchor, and a number of New Jersey breweries like Flying Fish,” he recalls. “But the market wasn’t ready for it back then.”

As a result, the industry experienced a memorably painful pullback. “We dissolved our craft beer section and maintained a standard macro beer section,” Pizzonia says.

Years later, at the beginning of craft beer’s second wave around 2003-2004, Pizzonia read an article about beer consumers looking for seasonal releases. “A lightbulb went off and I thought that maybe there’s something to this,” he remembers.

He built displays on the sales floor that highlighted seasonal offerings to entire patrons into buying these products. Also, he invested in open refrigeration coolers, placed in the middle of the sales floor.

“I wanted people, when they walked in, to see it,” Pizzonia explains. “I had the mindset, ‘If you build it, they will come’.”

As the second craft wave gained momentum, Court Liquors expanded its beer section. Eventually those original coolers became inefficient. During the store’s 2016 redesign, it built out traditional coolers along one wall. Today, Court Liquors boasts an expansive selection of craft beers, including hard-to-find items from around the country.

“Jesse, our craft beer manager and assistant manager, had originally taken a liking to wine, but saw an opportunity with craft beer and ran with it,” Pizzonia says. “He’s a real enthusiast and that section is in good hands.”

What’s Next?

As with their focus on eco-conscious wine, and an impressively diverse craft beer section, “Our focus will remain mining for those little nuggets of gold,” Pizzonia says of the future. “And we will continue to reach out to like-minded people.”

Accordingly, connoisseurs and newbies alike will find helpful employees at Court Liquors. “We have an extremely knowledgeable staff,” Pizzonia says. “We have multiple employees who have been here for at least ten years each.”

Knowledge and evolution are key for a store situated in such an interesting area that brings in an eclectic clientele.

“We can’t be all things for all people,” Pizzonia says, “but we do try to have something for everyone.”

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics. Reach him at Read his recent pieces, Consumer Demand Drives Alcohol Shipping Growth and How Retailers Will Handle Allocated Whiskey in 2024.


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