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Interview, Part 1: Blake Leonard Of Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits

November 24, 2021

Blake Leonard, recently named a Market Watch Leader, is vice president and spokesperson for her family’s eight independently owned and operated retail stores located across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, seven of which trade under the Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits banner, along with Ryann’s Wines in East Meadow, New York. The Stew Leonard’s stores have total annual revenues of about $100 million. SND executive editor Daniel Marsteller recently caught up with Leonard to discuss retail trends heading into the holidays.

SND: How are overall business conditions at Stew Leonard’s at the moment? What consumer buying trends jump out to you?

Leonard: There is a huge uptick in business right now. Customers are getting ready for bigger parties this holiday season. They’re spending, and spending more per bottle. Our stores offer case discounts when you buy six or more bottles, and the number of cases customers are buying at once are up 20% versus last year. More customers are reaching for premium wines and spirits and are willing to spend on higher quality brands. Small formats (cans and single serves), ready-to-drink cocktails, Tequila, Bourbon, and Champagne are buying trends that stand out. Spirit sales are soaring (up 20% versus last year). I’ve seen the biggest growth come from Tequila (up 150% since 2019), Bourbon (up 50%), and prepared cocktails (up 100%), which was a tiny category in 2019, and is now a bigger category than rum.

SND: Are any specific categories especially challenging in terms of keeping products in stock?

Leonard: My family’s store managers are really seeing this happening across the board as the whole three-tier system gets hit with production and logistics issues. I was recently talking to an importer who said that a container from Italy used to cost $3,000 and now it costs $8,000 if they’re lucky. The turnaround time of getting product to the U.S. used to take three weeks on the water and is now taking six. Irish whiskeys and single malt Scotches are taking three times as long to get to the U.S. as before. My brother-in-law owns his own Cognac brand in France and his bottlings are all delayed due to shortage of materials. However, I believe this is a temporary disruption and our stores are not raising prices because we anticipate it will all settle.

SND: Specifically regarding Champagne and other sparkling wines, how is momentum—and supply?

Leonard: Panic buying is happening within the sparkling category right now, specifically with Champagne. 2020 was an unprecedented year for Champagne, so looking at sales today against 2019, my family’s store managers tell me sales have doubled, which is about 5,000 more bottles sold so far this year. Customers are not price sensitive when it comes to Champagne and seem to be buying brand over price point. Our stores bought early and will be able to keep our shelves full through the holidays.

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