Any good beverage alcohol retailer knows that in addition to a wide selection and competitive prices, attentive customer service is a key ingredient to success. For the owners of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, Maryland, customer service sometimes means hand delivering nominal orders as far away as Washington, D.C.
“Several years ago, a customer ordered a case of Carlo Rossi 4-liter bottles for his visit to Annapolis,” recalls David Marberger, Bay Ridge co-owner. “But when he came to pick it up, we didn’t have it. A few days later, Chuck asked me to drive the case to Washington,” he says, pointing to his partner and father-in-law, Chuck Ferrar. “We lost money on that transaction, but we had made a promise to a customer, and we insisted on keeping it.”
For their commitment to customer service, along with their emergence as the largest beverage alcohol merchant in Maryland’s capital city, Marberger and Ferrar—who founded the business three decades ago—have been named 2021 Market Watch Leaders.
Ferrar acquired Bay Ridge, at the time a 4,000-square-foot store located in a shopping center, in 1991. Three years later, Marberger, with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, joined the business. “I knew that one day I wanted to own my own business,” Marberger says. “I thought joining Bay Ridge was a good opportunity. I’m glad I took it.”
To be sure, Bay Ridge has thrived in the Chesapeake Bay city—home to the state government, the U.S. Naval Academy and vacation destination for many—that Marberger jokingly calls “a drinking town with a sailing problem.” From first year sales of $660,000, Bay Ridge has grown into a $12 million player with 25 employees, and just recently added second location. And the third generation waits in the wings, with Marberger’s son James expected to join the family business soon.
With a focus on customer service, the duo got to work growing the business, and by 1998, it had outgrown its footprint and Bay Ridge relocated to a 10,000-square-foot space next door. Then, ten years later, with business still strong, Bay Ridge took back its original space and combined it with the existing store to make the 14,000-square-foot drinks emporium it is today. (Since the expansion, Maryland has capped liquor stores at 10,000 square feet but Bay Ridge has been “grandfathered in,” Marberger says.) Bay Ridge joined the Wine & Spirits Guild in 2005, and according to Ferrar, “the ability to exchange ideas with members of this group is invaluable.” In 2019, Ferrar retired from day-to-day operations of the store, although he still retains stock in the business, along with Marberger and Lisa Marberger, his wife and Ferrar’s daughter.
Growth of the business is continuing with this year’s purchase of Thompson Creek Liquors in Kent Island, Maryland, about 30 minutes from Annapolis. “Everything about the store made perfect sense,” Marberger says. “It was a phenomenal business for us to come in and take over, and at 4,000 square feet, we’re starting our track all over again.” The Queen Anne’s County store has been renamed Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits.
The Annapolis store, meanwhile, features 16-foot ceilings and wide aisles. “The store is very inviting and open,” Marberger says, with about half of its space dedicated to wine. “We intentionally left aisles five feet wide so two people with shopping carts can easily pass each other. While we try to feature as much product as possible, we keep a careful eye on ease of movement for our customers.” Additional features include a wine room with tasting bar, Napa Technology wine tasting stations, draft beer for growler and Crowler fills, and a 30-door cooler. Wine accounts for 43% of company sales, followed by spirits at 30%, beer at 22%, and miscellaneous items at 5%.
As with other beverage alcohol retailers, 2020 broke records for Bay Ridge, even though Marberger estimates that the store lost some $1 million in planned catering sales. Moreover, Bay Ridge was voluntarily closed for in-store shopping for ten weeks last spring, with only curbside pickup and store delivery available via phone orders. While both services had been available to shoppers prior to the pandemic—the store has reserved two vehicles for deliveries, carried out by employees, for some time—curbside pickup was only infrequently used in the past. “The pandemic has made it an ongoing service,” Marberger notes. And so far in 2021, sales continue to increase. “We’re heading in a positive direction,” he says, driven by spirits, canned cocktails, hard seltzers, and other RTDs.
But wine has long been the store’s leading category. “Annapolis is a wine-oriented town,” explains Ferrar. “People here have some pretty sophisticated palates.” Overall, Bay Ridge features about 3,000 wine SKUs, with $13-$20 wines the most popular. Top-selling labels include La Marca Prosecco ($14 a 750-ml.), 2018 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay ($11), and 2020 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($15). Marberger notes that the store has developed a reputation among customers for offering a treasure chest of wines. “Due to the wide selection of wines available in the state, we rotate wines in for a few months, and then bring in something else,” he says. “It’s ever changing.” Bay Ridge’s “wine of the week” promotion—such as the recent 2019 The Curator red blend from South Africa ($9)—is also popular. “It’s known and loved by our customers,” Marberger says of the weekly deal.
Some 1,500 spirits SKUs are offered at Bay Ridge, ranging from $9 for Burnett’s vodka to $1,000 for Courvoisier Erté Collection Cognac, with Tito’s vodka ($30 a 1.75-liter) the store’s top seller. “Spirits are on fire,” Marberger notes, driven by the cocktail boom of the last 10-15 years, and the more recent canned cocktail surge. “The Bourbon craze has bled over into Irish whiskey and Tequila, as well as cordials,” the retailer continues. “Products that we used to stock as staples, such as Campari, fly off the shelves.” But he adds that he’s learned from Ferrar over the years that it’s important to track not only high-flying brands but those that languish too. “Chuck always ran a bottom-seller report,” he says. “You have to pay attention to the products sitting and collecting dust to have a look at the whole picture.”
The store’s single-barrel offerings have been enormously popular, according to Marberger. “We’ve been involved in at least 100 single-barrel products,” he notes, with brands including Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Elijah Craig, Maker’s Mark, Blanton’s, and Patrón. A single-barrel rum is in the works. “Not only is it fun for our staff, but our customers love to see what we’ve chosen,” he says. Bay Ridge stocks about 2,000 beer SKUs, priced from $4 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans of Old Milwaukee to $14 a 6-pack of bottles of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. Miller Lite ($21 a 30-pack of cans) is the store’s overall top seller, although much of the excitement in the category these days revolves around hard seltzers, such as White Claw ($18 a 12-pack), Marberger says. “The experimentation and variety that marked craft beer for so many years has now leaked into other categories, including seltzers, canned cocktails and spirits,” he notes. The Maryland retailer also takes special efforts to promote locally produced products. “We bring in as many local products as we can, whether it’s beer, wine, or liquor,” Marberger says. The store’s wine department devotes a special section to releases from the mid-Atlantic state, while displays are sometimes featured for products from the likes of Baltimore’s Sagamore Spirit distillery. Many of the products are denoted with shelf talkers proclaiming, “Made in Maryland.”
“I believe every business has a personality,” says Marberger. “Our store’s personality has been derived from Chuck and his complete and utter desire to satisfy every customer who comes in the store.” That attention to customer-service is apparent throughout store operations—whether its via special orders, the shop’s layout and design or Bay Ridge’s catering department, which makes recommendations, delivers and picks up excess product for private parties that include weddings and celebrations tied to Naval Academy events.
Bay Ridge is widely known in the Annapolis area for its twice-yearly Customer Appreciation sale, held in February and September, although it was suspended during the pandemic. The three-day sale offers up everything in the store at regular Maryland wholesale prices plus $1. At press time, a Customer Appreciation sale was planned for this month. Other marketing support is largely digital, and includes twice-weekly emails to 16,000 customers, as well as social media. A mobile app is in the works, according to Marberger, noting that with the surge in phone and delivery orders last year, “the pandemic made us realize that we needed our own app.” He adds that the app will likely attract new customers to the store.
Those new customers will undoubtedly be well taken care of, thanks to Bay Ridge’s emphasis on customer service. “I look at a complaint as an opportunity,” says Ferrar. “When customers complain to you, it’s their way of saying, ‘I want to do business with you.’ So anytime there’s been a complaint, I’ve taken it on as a challenge. I’ve turned some big complainers into loyal customers.”