Before opening Williquors in Bismarck, North Dakota, owner Bill Klein and his partners visited around 200 liquor stores across 20 states.
“We found what made our store magic, piece by piece,” Klein says.
From information they gathered, taking note of what did and did not work well, they opened the 27,000-square-foot Williquors in December of 2014. Today the store counts more than 8,000 SKUs.
“My business partners and I had been looking into the industry for about five or six years before we opened,” recalls Klein. Previously he co-owned a construction materials supply company. Opening a business in the alcohol industry “had always been an interest of ours, since our younger years.”
Location and Variety
Originally the plan was to purchase a couple of bars. But negotiations broke down on that deal. So Klein and his partners began their research into retail.
They were going to build a smaller store. They had in mind something around 17,000 square feet. They had picked the perfect lot to match this size, but were left wondering whether they wanted a greater variety of SKUs — meaning they’d need more room.
“We wanted to be a destination store,” Klein says.
Good fortune came calling — literally. A local grocery chain, Dan’s Supermarket, heard that Klein was interested in opening an alcohol retail business. It just so happened that Dan’s was planning a new location of their own, and wanted a liquor store next door as another consumer draw for the shopping convenience. (Grocery stores in North Dakota cannot sell liquor).
The opportunity for synergy was obvious. And the adjacent property allowed for a larger store with greater variety. Problem was, Klein and his partners had already purchased the other lot. They had to make a choice.
Ultimately, they went with Dan’s and the bigger property. They sold the other lot. The subsequent success of Williquors speaks for itself. A large part of that has been the great variety of SKUs, making the store the destination that Klein had desired.
He and his partners are now opening a second location this fall in Sioux Falls — which will contain even more floor space for products. This mirrors what has worked in Bismarck.
“We have all the regular high-volume items, but we’re also loaded with things you cannot get anywhere else,” Klein says. “We have more than 3,100 wine SKUs. Our biggest competitor has only 1,500-2,000. A standard liquor store may have only 10 types of tequila. Here we have 100.”
“People come from everywhere for our store,” he adds. “They come from as far as a couple of hundred of miles away. We get people from multiple states shopping in our store.”
The Ideal Design
Above all else, Williquors wants to make the customer as happy as possible, with a shopping experience that’s the most convenient. Many tricks of the trade learned by Klein and his partners during their research went into building the best business they could.
Design-wise, Williquors has wide aisles for easier navigation. The store offers full-size shopping carts. There’s also a full-size wine tasting table, where producers and distributors regularly sample product, especially on the weekends.
Klein and his partners put a lot of time and effort into creating the ideal shelves. They did not like setups where the bottom shelves looked small and out-of-reach, because product down there was less likely to attract attention. Working with a design company, they went through 10 trials, receiving shelves and sending them back. Finally they arrived at what they wanted (though not without a few more tweaks).
“In our store, the bottom row is as easily visible as the top shelf or middle,” Klein explains.
They removed plastic dividers for more shelving space. At the Sioux Falls location, they plan for all shelving to be notched.
This attention to detail extends to the staff. Williquors employees receive training for the whole store. That way they can answer any question asked by customers.
“Customer satisfaction is our number one thing,” Klein says. “Our slogan is that we call our store ‘27,000 square feet of liquid happiness’.”
Williquors contains a classroom for consumer education. Typically this is with wine, though the store has also held classes on spirits and mixology. It even hosts movie nights where attendees sip wine while watching alcohol-themed films like “Bottle Shock.”
The room can hold 40 people. Williquors puts on about two classes per month. Starting at 6 p.m., these events usually last between 60-to-90 minutes.
Consumer education continues out of the classroom. The store’s website has an extensive and easy-to-navigate list of wine definitions, tasting descriptions and food-pairing recommendations.
“Education really is the biggest thing with wine,” says Brent Skjerseth, CSW, wine manager at Williquors. “With the variety that we have, some customers come here and it can feel overwhelming. We want people to be able to walk our store and peruse the different varietals at their leisure.”
“But not everyone can attend our classes, so we put all that pairing information online,” he adds. “That way they can come in with a little bit more information already. I also think that people can get a little gun shy about asking real questions, though obviously we’re here to help them and also make suggestions.”
In terms of wine trends, Skjerseth believes that labels have become more important than ever.
“People are very label-conscious now,” he says. “They still trust the producers whose quality they know, like the Mondavis and the Kendall-Jacksons.” But, he adds, consumers are more willing to try a new wine now if the label stands out.
“Labels have almost become their own abstract art form, and consumers now see that as a main part of the wine,” Skjerseth says. “They’ll be more willing to try a wine with an eye-catching label, where in the past they would have shied away.”
Accordingly, he has seen producers shift from the simpler, standardized Old World “Where/What/When” labels, as well as from the trend of animal designs in the 2000s.
As for the modern augmented-reality labels, Skjerseth acknowledges that the technology and its popularity is “on the upswing, but I don’t know how long it will last. How long people do people want to stand there on their phone, looking at one label, I don’t know. But AR has gotten more people into different varietals, so that’s good.”
Maintaining the vast wine selection in Williquors means finding the right SKUs.
Skjerseth looks first and foremost for quality. How’s it taste? How well was the wine made? He’s also looking for variety in labels, as well as in packaging innovations — cans, Tetra Paks, etc. And he’s trying to “fill every gap we can. If a quirky varietal comes up, we’ll try to get it.”
The goal is to provide the most well-rounded wine shopping experience possible.
“Variety is the spice of life here,” Skjerseth says. “We tell our distributors that we’ll try something new so long as it’s pretty good. We have the space. And it’s important to keep in mind that just because I don’t like a wine, doesn’t mean that a thousand customers won’t.”
Beer and Spirits Strategies
Bourbon remains red hot at Williquors, while Scotch sales have trended towards the higher end. That means more sales for single malts like The Macallan, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and the Game of Thrones-branded bottles. So explains Shannon Lemar, beer and spirits manager.
“People are buying better stuff,” he says, “especially customers who are cocktailing.” Accordingly, he reports an uptick in sales for premium gins.
In the craft beer category, the IPA craze remains in full force. Customers at Williquors reach more for the hoppier brews — including the trendier hazy and flavored IPAs — and less for darker styles like porters and stouts. “Domestic beers are still going strong, but we’ve definitely seen the big upswing in craft beer,” Lemar says. “That’s all IPA, IPA, IPA. Nobody brings out a dark beer anymore.”
Craft beer customers continue to be fickle, and wildly explorative. “Our craft guys will try one thing and then be done with it,” Lemar says, as these drinkers favor whatever’s new to them. “Our suppliers are always trying to bring us new and different craft beers,” he adds.
National craft breweries have been chugging along, but some name-brand producers like Ballast Point and Stone haven’t sold as much in recent time. “Those can be a little bit more expensive,” Lemar says. “Around here, the big price point is $10-$11 for a 6-pack. People are less likely to spend $15 on a 6-pack, which is goofy, because they won’t hesitate spending $22 on a 6-pack of Bell’s Hopslam.”
Perhaps the most reliable craft beer sales are whatever brands are brewed close by. Williquors will sell a lot of local beers once they come into stock. “People will support local brands as much as they can,” Lemar says.
Spiked seltzers like Truly and White Claw continue to grow. These will only get bigger, Lemar points out, as winter turns into spring and summer. Same goes for FMBs like Twisted Tea.
With those categories increasing in sales, the loser appears to be cider. “We’ve seen a little decline there with the spiked water craze going on,” Lemar says.
Williquors operates a 14-tap growler system for in-store pours. At first Klein was against the idea of adding it in, but was impressed with growler sales he saw at other retailers.
The setup of Williquors requires that the business keep its beer kegs beneath the pouring system. This limits the store to 14 taps. At the new location in Sioux Falls, kegs can go in the cooler, which will allow for more taps at the growler station if so desired.
“Growler sales are still doing well,” Klein reports. “They’ve increased every year since we’re been open. It really depends what kegs we get in.”
“People still really love local,” he adds. “Local breweries cannot sell directly, so they’ll go through distributors to get to us. At least four of our taps are always on local.”
Like many retailers, Williquors has recently seen the growth of growler sales slow down somewhat. “We’re hoping that this summer that will pick up again,” Lemar says.
Williquors has had success with digital, mobile and customer loyalty marketing.
The business posted on Twitter for a while, but found that that platform did not connect as well with North Dakota consumers. So Williquors shifted its digital efforts more towards its website and Facebook page. The latter helps promote the former, while also hosting a video series in which staff talk about different wines, sales specials or other traffic-drivers.
Customers who text a special code can receive messages from Williquors. For instance, information on upcoming wine or whiskey classes, or a heads up when a rare bourbon arrives in the store. “These sorts of products can sell out in half an hour,” Skjerseth says, “so whiskey-lovers appreciate that text.”
Williquors purposely does not inundate customers with texts, with about one per month. And people can opt out at any time.
As Williquors attracts visitors from across multiple states, it’s well out of the way for some shoppers. Management wanted to help retain these longer-distance customers with a loyalty program. Once signed up, a customer earns two points for every $1 they spend on wine or spirits, and one point for beer. After they hit 1,000 points, they earn $10 off.
“They can bank points, and turn them into a gift card,” Skjerseth says.
The loyalty program launched immediately upon Williquors opening. Today it counts around 3,000-4,000 participants. The business advertises the program under the slogan, “Where else do you get paid to shop?”
“It’s becomes a competition between some people: who has the most points,” Skjerseth says. “They’ll bank them and bank them and bank them.”
The program also gives Williquors access to thousands of customer emails, which they’ll send e-marketing for sales specials, some which aren’t advertised in local newspapers.
What’s In A Name?
You may be wondering what the business name means. What kind of portmanteau is Williquors?
The name started from the old-fashioned, gleeful expression “gee willikers.” The idea was to swap out the final two syllables of that phrase with “liquors.”
But a business in Minnesota was already legally known as something too similar to that proposed name. So Klein and his partners dropped the first word and went with the original idea for the second half: Williquors. (It’s also fitting that Klein’s first name is William.)
Now they can operate the brand name in multiple states. The process of arriving at that finalized name reflects one of the keys to success for Williquors: improvement through learning and tweaking.
“We opened up our perfect store in Bismarck,” Klein says with a laugh, “and then figured out what we could do to be more perfect in our next store.”