New Jersey discount beverage alcohol retail chain Bottle King has been in business for five decades, all the while adapting to changing times and shifting trends. The original Bottle King was founded by CEO Ken Friedman—a Market Watch Leader—in Union, New Jersey in 1970. Over the years, the company has grown to encompass more than a dozen locations in the Garden State.
This spring, Bottle King had to shift gears in the face of Covid-19, shuttering all brick-and-mortar operations on March 23. “It was a difficult decision, but I knew the pandemic was only going to get worse and I wanted to protect our employees and our customers,” says general manager Steve Carpentier.
The company moved online, offering delivery and curbside pickup. Each Bottle King has at least one van, with employees delivering orders themselves rather than using third-party services like Drizly. “The 100% online business is labor intensive,” says Carpentier. “We had to modify our hours for pickup and deliveries, as well as set a specific time frame for customers to place orders online. This has helped our staff accommodate the onslaught of orders, and also prevents delays.”
Just three months prior to the shutdown, in December, Bottle King opened a new unit in Princeton, New Jersey, at 775 State Road. The 13,000-square-foot store—the chain’s 15th location—is co-owned by Carpentier. When the Princeton store launched, he aimed to continue Bottle King’s business model of customer service, extensive selection, and discount pricing. In the midst of Covid-19, all those values have served the business well. “Every week, we’ve become more efficient in expediting our customers’ orders,” he says.
Like other retailers, the new Princeton store has seen sales rise sharply since the first week of March. Carpentier says customers have mostly been ordering products they recognize; as a result, some exclusive offerings are suffering. Brands seeing success include Bota Box, Josh Cellars, Kendall-Jackson, Cavit, and Kim Crawford. Local craft beer from breweries such as Kane Brewing are also making gains, and customers have stockpiled vodka—including Tito’s, Smirnoff, and Absolut.
The Princeton Bottle King stocks 2,250 SKUs of still wine and 150 SKUs of sparkling wine. Before Covid-19 shut down stores, Carpentier says customers were gravitating toward French, South American, and California offerings. The store has 1,210 spirits SKUs and, prior to the crisis, national brands like Tito’s vodka ($30 a 1.75-liter) and Skrewball peanut butter-flavored whiskey ($29 a 750-ml.) were highly sought after. Bourbon was becoming the most popular spirits category, and sake was also trending among consumers.
Bottle King stocks 1,200 beer SKUs, with mainstream options like Bud Light ($23 a 30-pack of 12-ounce cans) and Miller Lite ($16 a 18-pack of 12-ounce cans), along with hard seltzers like White Claw ($14 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans), maintaining consumer interest. The new store’s beer section is more focused on craft. “The interest is in local and fresh beer, which we try to have as much as possible,” Carpentier says. During Bottle King’s first months of business, customer favorites included New Jersey-made offerings like Carton Brewing Co.’s 077XX IPA ($14 a 4-pack of 12-ounce cans), Magnify Brewing Co.’s Vine Shine IPA ($13 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans), and Bolero Snort Brewery’s Hooffa Pilsner ($9 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans).
Following its opening, the Princeton store quickly became a destination for beer aficionados, as it often received shipments of in-demand offerings like Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing’s Strongest Woman On Earth Belgian-style tripel ($14 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans). “This type of beer drinker wants a new release within a week of its launch,” Carpentier says, adding that customers are notified of new or limited products via social media, email newsletters, and twice-monthly flyers. “We try to get ahead of the game, but we’re careful of how we broadcast things to make sure we don’t sell out too quickly.”
After lockdown restrictions lifted, Carpentier opened the store in mid-May, with precautions in place. Sneeze guards are installed at every register and six-foot markers are taped onto floors. “We insist customers and staff wear masks, and we limit the amount of customers shopping in our stores at a time,” Carpentier says. “We try to keep the shopping experience as safe as possible.”