The landscape is drastically changing for independent beverage retailers in Indiana. Now more than ever, it’s become more difficult for retailers to distinguish themselves from the competition and keep up with the state’s constantly shifting laws and regulations. Despite these challenges, Crown Liquors is a chain that’s managed to not only survive the industry’s ups and downs, but also thrive.
Building a Distinctive Brand
With 22 stores located in central Indiana employing more than 200 people, the company is run by its three co-owners, who have been friends since college.
David Symmes and Tony Kroot opened the first Crown Liquors location shortly after their college graduation in 1989. Their friend Jon Sinder went on to complete an MBA and law degree before joining the company as an equal partner several years later when it had grown to include three locations.
The trio continue running the business together today, with Sinder primarily managing the accounting, legal and real estate development aspects of the company. Symmes is in charge of human resources and operations, overseeing Crown Liquors’ two large warehouses. Kroot takes care of bulk purchasing and pricing, along with some accounting oversight.
The company continued its expansion over the years, generally opening at least one new store per year until it reached an all-time high of 29 locations. In November 2017, the company sold its seven lowest-volume stores in an effort to compartmentalize operations and improve efficiencies, leaving Crown Liquors with its current portfolio of 22 retail locations.
Each Crown Liquors store operates in a very distinctive market.
Its flagship store in downtown Indianapolis is uniquely situated in a three-story landmark building that was built in 1895.
While some of the other stores are located in affluent areas of Indianapolis and the surrounding suburbs, others are in higher-crime neighborhoods and feature bullet-resistant glass windows (The bullet-resistant stores were created back when Crown Liquors also served as check-cashing facilities, a feature that was once widely popular at liquor stores across the state). The company follows a unique model that classifies each of its stores as either A, B, or C, categories that are largely based on location.
“‘A’ stores all feature a dedicated fine wine room and offer a higher-priced selection of wines,” Sinder says. “These stores all require employees to have the ability to do a lot of hand-selling. Our ‘B’ stores are a slight step down and are considered our middle-of-the-road stores. Our ‘C’ stores are the ones in bullet-resistant environments.”
Sinder stresses that even though the ‘C’ stores offer customers a slightly different experience, aesthetics are an important part of all Crown Liquors locations. The company is highly focused on store design and layout. Its newer locations all feature a similar industrial look with exposed ceilings, stainless steel accents and LED lighting in an effort to look like a modern shopping alternative.
Real estate acquisition is also a key component of the Crown Liquors business model. The majority of the company’s stores are housed in locations that Crown Liquors has either purchased or built. Later this year, the Greenfield store will move from its currently leased space into a new location the company is building from the ground up in order to allow for ultimate flexibility in overall look and feel.
Creating a distinctive look for its stores and concentrating on property ownership have definitely contributed to Crown Liquors’ success. However, the two factors that make up the company’s guiding principles are actually pricing and products. Despite the diverse demographics of its locations, Crown Liquors has made a name for itself by offering competitive pricing that’s consistent across all of its locations, and for keeping its products in stock.
“We have the same markup on products that we’ve had since the late 1990’s. Our prices aren’t always necessarily the lowest, but they’re fair,” Sinder says. “Our management team meets to analyze our out-of-stock products every week in a very methodical way. We want to make sure customers are confident that when they walk in the door, their product is going to be there.”
William Moore, chain general manager of Crown Liquors, says that the company’s three-tier store model plays an important role in determining which products are stocked at each store.
“‘C’ stores carry more mainstream products, the staples that you’re likely to find in any liquor store,” Moore says. “As you work your way up to the ‘A’ stores, you’ll find many more hand-selected single barrels, ingredients for craft cocktails and more premium wines. There’s a blending from top to bottom that may appear very subtle when you look at just a couple of stores, but when you look at the whole chain, the products look very different.”
In order to properly gauge which products are most suited for each individual store, Crown Liquors pays careful attention to customer feedback. Employee feedback is also crucial to management, as oftentimes it’s the store staff members who have the best insight into the consumer mind because they are the ones who closely interact with customers on a daily basis.
Customer service and education are other key components of Crown Liquors’ business model. Employees are encouraged to attend tastings and other industry events to expand their knowledge in order to effectively share information with customers. The company always seeks new and improved ways of meeting customer needs. Several locations recently began pilot testing Drizly, the liquor delivery service, and Sinder expects it to expand to additional stores in the near future.
Crown Liquors relies heavily on social media to help maintain high levels of consumer engagement. Facebook is by far the most popular social network for the company; its page currently has more than 19,000 followers. Tastings, raffles, events and special promotions are regularly announced on Facebook, as well as on Twitter and Instagram. Video is a popular tool used across channels to share educational information and showcase new products with customers.
Sinder says social media is so effective for the business that Crown Liquors never runs any print advertising whatsoever. They do maintain an e-mail database and send out ongoing promotional messages, but the only other type of advertising that happens regularly is via strategically placed billboards.
“We’ll use directional billboards for our stores that are close to major intersections, which we think provides a type of benefit that print just can’t do,” Sinder says. “We also always use the billboards to promote the openings of new stores.”
Capitalizing on Current Trends
Along with keeping track of the latest regulatory issues and trying to keep pace with or outmaneuver the competition, Indiana retailers are tasked with keeping up with local and national beverage trends. It’s imperative to not only be aware of the new products emerging on the market, but to be able to identify which of those products will appeal to unique customer demographics.
“Indiana used to be a bit more behind the trends than it is now,” Moore says. “We were at the disadvantage of being in a small city located in the middle of the country. But over the years, Indianapolis has changed, and we’ve changed with it. The restaurant scene here has picked up and evolved and new microbreweries have opened. Consumer demand has changed, and we’ve been able to meet it.”
Sinder and Moore both report that Crown Liquors tends to follow the larger national trends. Rosé and sparkling wines continue gaining popularity, as do canned wines. On the spirit side, bourbon continues to be hot, and Crown Liquors stores all carry a robust bourbon selection. Irish Whiskey and tequila are also thriving, and there appears to be renewed interest in the rum category.
Indiana craft beer is also expanding, with more microbreweries popping up across the state in the past decade as consumers have expressed interest in buying local products.
Crown Liquors maintains strong relationships with distributors, breweries and distilleries, which allows the company to offer unique opportunities to its customers. The company’s single-barrel bourbon program has been popular with customers for years, and the excitement around it has only intensified as the category has gained momentum nationwide.
“Our close proximity to Kentucky distilleries gives us great access to some of the best bourbons,” Moore says. “We’ve been able to hand-select a large number of barrels and offer them to customers at many of our stores.”
A panel comprised of Moore and four other Crown Liquors staff members who are extremely knowledgeable about bourbon collaborate to choose each barrel for the program. In 2014, Crown Liquors submitted a Four Roses single-barrel to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition that was awarded the best single-barrel bourbon and the best bourbon overall. Four Roses bourbon selections continue to be the company’s most popular single-barrel offerings.
Sometimes when one of the barrels are empty, Crown Liquors will give it to a local brewery, which then will age a beer in it. Moore says the product results have been a bit mixed so far, but that customer response has been extremely positive.
“It’s a fun thing we can do for our customers and it’s something that makes us unique,” he says. “I definitely think we’ll keep doing it.”
Navigating a Changing Industry
Like all retailers, one of Crown Liquors’ top priorities continues to be keeping up with constantly changing laws and regulations imposed on the alcohol beverage industry. In Indiana, the changes have come fast and furious. One of the most monumental changes went into effect on February 28, 2018, when Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed a new bill into law permitting carryout sales of alcohol on Sundays for the first time in the state’s history. Consumers now have the ability to shop for alcohol seven days per week. However, many retailers are wary of the bill and fear that it will actually hurt small businesses rather than help them.
“Over the last few years, we realized that Sunday sales were something our customers very much wanted, and it became the right thing to do,” Sinder explains. “What remains to be seen is to what extent this new bill will result in six days of sales spread out over seven days.”
In order to position Crown Liquors to effectively manage these and other changes, Sinder also serves as the current chairman of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers (IABR), an organization dedicated to being the voice of Indiana’s package store industry. More than 1,000 retailers currently belong to the association and work together to promote responsible retailing practices, develop public policy initiatives and build stronger communities with local advocates.
Sinder says that additional legislative issues remain in constant discussion throughout Indiana, and Sunday sales likely won’t be the top controversial issue for long. By participating in IABR, Sinder encourages other retailers to collaborate in order to understand the current state of the industry and learn best practices for addressing current and future changes.
“We are a highly regulated business, and I appreciate that,” Sinder says. “I believe Indiana has its regulatory system set up just right. Our association continues to advocate for a highly regulated environment, and I’m proud of what Crown Liquors contribute to the industry and to the people of this state.”
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.