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Interview: Stew Leonard Jr. Talks Trends In His Wine Stores

July 22, 2015

Stew Leonard Jr., the Connecticut grocer who parlayed his reputation for world-class merchandising tactics into wine retailing 16 years ago, now has his sights on growth through distilled spirits and craft beer, as well as an enhanced online presence. Leonard, president and CEO of four gourmet groceries and operator of nine wine shops in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, says the combined annual sales revenue of Stew Leonard’s Wines stores is now close to $100 million, with wine accounting for about two-thirds of sales and spirits and beer both comprising 15%. The stores—three each in Connecticut, in New York and in New Jersey—average 10,000 square feet. Shanken News Daily spoke with Leonard about current trends and the opportunities for future growth.

SND: What key buying patterns are you seeing at Stew Leonard’s Wines?

Leonard: Wines from Argentina and Spain have been very popular, and rosés and red blends continue to remain trendy. While we offer Bordeaux priced up to $1,000 a bottle, the sweet spot in our stores is between $10 and $20 a bottle. We’re always bringing in new, exciting wines to provide a treasure-hunt experience. We generally carry over 2,000 wine SKUs.

SND: What merchandising tactics have been most effective?

Leonard: Special displays like “90-point wines for under $20” and “90-point wines for under $30” are popular. For many of our customers, those displays help take the guesswork out of buying wine. Our regular in-store tastings are also very effective. One of the biggest apprehensions some people have about buying wine is that they don’t know what it tastes like. Once you let customers taste a wine, they can make a decision right there. And even if they don’t buy it then, they might do so on their next visit.

SND: While spirits represent a smaller portion of your sales, what trends are you seeing?

Leonard: We’re seeing a lot of growth with Bourbon and whiskey, and as a result, we’re allocating more space to spirits. We currently offer about 500 distilled spirits SKUs. We’re getting more excited about spirits.

SND: What are you doing in craft beer? Are you expanding your selection?

Leonard: Definitely, and not only expanding it, but we’re trying to educate our customers because we’re finding they really like local beer. We now stock over 600 beer SKUs, and when we open up our fifth grocery store in Farmingdale, on Long Island, early next year, we’re going to have our first growler section.

SND: Are you planning any changes to your wine stores?

Leonard: We’d love to develop our online business more. Currently, it’s not a big portion of our sales, but it is growing. We’d like to develop a “click and collect” system, where a customer can put together an order online and then pick it up at the store. We want to have a stronger online presence than we have today.


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