109 wine shop weathers competition from increased liquor chains

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Chris Keel is used to facing some challenges to his wine shop business by now.

After weathering the economic recession and building his inventory back up, the next challenge Keel and his shop, Put a Cork In It, will face is the increased competition from chain liquor stores that are coming to Fort Worth.

Put a Cork In It opened in January 2006 on Park Hill Drive near the South University Drive intersection. It was Keel’s first business — he said he became interested in wine when he worked at a country club while attending Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.

When the recession arrived in 2008, Keel said the shop took a hit and had to decrease its inventory. The number of different wines sold at the store dipped from about 500 to below 400, and Keel estimated the average cost of a bottle went down from about $17 to $14.

The store used to be more crowded, with shelves both lining the walls and running down the middle of the floor. Keel removed about 50 to 70 labels at the time he took out the shelves from the store’s interior.

As the national economy has recovered in the past few years, Keel said his inventory has climbed back up to above 400 different labels.

However, he is now facing more competition from chain stores that saw Fort Worth as a growing economy and a profitable alcohol market.

In December, Houston-based Spec’s, the largest chain liquor store in Texas, opened its first North Texas store in Dallas, and then announced plans to expand into Fort Worth and across the Metroplex. It plans to open a store in the 109 on South Hulen Street where a vacant Marvin Electronics Co. building stands at the moment, and according to TABC records, the store’s liquor license is pending.

Down the street from the Spec’s location, California-based wine retailer and grocer Trader Joe’s is in the final stages of building its own store. Trader Joe’s also has announced plans to open more stores in the DFW area.

The effects of the chains’ expansion was felt as early as February, when Dallas-based Centennial Beverage Group said it would close seven of its DFW stores, including four in Fort Worth.

Keel said he would probably do more wine tastings and have more winemakers visit the shop to counter the competition of the rising number of liquor stores.

He already holds free wine tastings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The number of people who come in over that span each week averages between 150 and 200.

Despite the increased competition, however, Keel said he would continue to run his business as he has. He added that he never worried too much about the numbers anyway.

“I’m probably not the best business person, but I know my clientele and I know my wines,” he said.

Keel said there was not much more to starting a wine shop or liquor store besides opening the doors and selling alcohol, but he said the business needs to build trust with its customers as it goes along.

Keel builds trust by being knowledgeable about his product.

“I try everything in here, and I try roughly 5,000 wines a year,” he said. “So I kind of know what’s out there and what’s available, and I can lead [customers] into that wine — if they want that certain wine, I’ll have something comparable to it, and I’ll know what that tastes like.”

Michael Stein, a customer of Put a Cork In It for about four years, lives within walking distance of the store and comes to tastings with his wife. He likes the more personal touch of the store and how it is different from the chains.

At chain stores’ wine tastings, “it seems like they’re less helpful because they’re only representing themselves, whereas here [at Put a Cork In It] they want a customer to buy a variety of things as opposed to, ‘Here’s the four that we carry,” Stein said. “It just seems much more personalized here than at the big store.”

Stein also used an example of when Keel handpicked a wine for Stein’s wife during a tasting.

“It freaked me out — we were sampling something and Chris said to my wife, ‘Oh, you’ll like this one,’” Stein said. “And she takes one sip of that one and she’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great.’ He knew what she liked based on us coming here for so many years, and he had it nailed. He knew exactly which one.”

Keel said he liked being able to help customers find the right wine.

“It’s amazing how much people trust you coming in when they’re buying a bottle of wine,” he said. “It’s not like it’s going to save their life or anything, but it’s pretty cool to just help.”

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