Longtime drugstore owner John Haronian wanted beverage alcohol to be his second act, but he desired a chain approach to selling beverage alcohol in Rhode Island—where multiple store ownerships are prohibited. Haronian, who owned one liquor store along with the Douglas Drug chain, realized he couldn’t expand the way he wanted to, so he opted for a more unique approach. He launched Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing in 2004 as a consulting firm to individually owned beverage alcohol retail stores in Rhode Island. The company also operates as a franchising business in Massachusetts, where the law allows for a limited chain approach. “We could see the economies of scale we achieved in the drug business and I was trying to carry it forward into the liquors business,” he says.
Because the laws in Rhode Island are among the strictest in the country, Haronian had to adapt. “We became a consulting company in Rhode Island, giving our opinions and offering our services such as the signage, the operations, the training and other services,” he says. In Massachusetts, the model is to franchise individual stores. “The ownership would be the individuals but the franchise would be the cap that goes over it,” he says. Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing receives a fee for its services but has no ownership in the stores.
In addition to Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing, Haronian owns one franchised store in Massachusetts. His daughter, Kathy Haronian, owns two franchises. She also serves as president of Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing. John is by no means stepping away from the business, but he is leaving much of the day-to-day work squarely on Kathy’s shoulders. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t discuss something,” Kathy says, noting that she began working with her father at age 9, straightening cards in the family’s Douglas Drug stores. By her teenage years, she had graduated to unofficial bookkeeper. Aside from attending college to study accounting, she’s been involved with the family business ever since. “I just wanted to be at work with him,” she says of her early years in the business with her father. In early 2021, she was promoted to president, having previously served as chief operating officer.
For their innovative approach to beverage alcohol sales and marketing, John and Kathy Haronian have been named 2021 Market Watch Leaders.
Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing, which totals $80 million in revenue annually, specializes in three models: The Douglas Group, Liquor Warehouse, and Wines & More—and clients and franchisees typically operate under the umbrella of one of the three models. The “premier” model is Wines & More, a large-profile location that boasts extensive wine, spirits and beer selections, including luxury and hard-to-find products. The stores range from 15,000-17,000 square feet and are typically located in large regional shopping centers. “Wines & More plays to a different audience,” John says. “We concentrate on customer service, education, and having a great selection, especially when it comes to craft beers and wines.”
Frank Mariano, the firm’s vice president of product development and purchasing, says Wines & More has ramped up its spirits focus as consumer demands have shifted. “In Wines & More, we want to have as robust Bourbon, Scotch, and Tequila sections as possible,” he says. “All of those brands that customers are starting to identify with, we want to make sure that we have a fantastic selection.” No matter the category, Wines & More is where customers can find luxury and hard-to-get items, John adds. Of the three store types, Wines & More stores have the largest number of SKUs in each beverage alcohol category, carrying around 7,000 wine labels, 5,000 spirits, and 4,500-5,000 beer selections.
A second concept, People’s Liquor Warehouse stores, can typically be found in regional shopping centers, John says, noting that the stores range from 12,000-15,000 square feet. “The philosophy with People’s is that you buy it right and you sell it right,” he says. “You only take the top items and you take the deepest deal. You try to concentrate on price, price, price—along with service, to the customer.” People’s stores typically carry 6,000 wine SKUS and 4,000 spirits and beer SKUs.
A third option is The Douglas Group of stores, which are typically smaller at 8,000-10,000 square feet and cater to a neighborhood clientele. “The selection is not as extensive as a Wines & More, just because of the space constraints that come with a Douglas,” notes Mariano. “We try to market in line with the individual demographics of the neighborhood.”
While the selection varies by store, the small footprint means a more limited range of products. Douglas stores typically carry around 4,000 wine SKUs, 3,000 spirits labels, and 2,500-3,000 beers. “We have to be more particular as far as what we put in those stores, especially with new items and innovation,” Mariano says.
No matter what the concept, each individual store owner is responsible for purchasing product. “We make suggestions like this is what’s hot, this is what we’re reading in Market Watch, these are the hot trends,” says Mariano. “It’s up to them to decide whether or not they want to carry the items.”
Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing has a line of more than 100 private label products that complement the range of global, national and regional brands in each store. “It’s brought a lot to the table for us,” says Kathy.
All store types carry miscellaneous, non-alcoholic items, but the selection varies by brand and by state. In particular, Rhode Island stores are more limited in the items they can carry, while Massachusetts Wines & More stores can offer an array of gift items, such as Stonewall Kitchen or Terrapin Ridge Farms products, to spur additional spending.
Walsh also runs the company’s extensive gift basket department. “We have a variety on hand of about 65 different baskets at any given time, with a few more at the holidays,” she says. “They are a year-round item for us and they do very well.” Prices range from about $6 for a “nip bundle”—essentially a single-serve cocktail—to just over $100 for an elaborate basket. “We have wine, beer and spirit versions for customers, and we also do custom gift baskets,” she says.
Among the services provided by Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing is training of the roughly 15 employees at each of the 14 stores. The firm also offers in-store signage and displays, operational support, advertising and marketing services, and other support. Each individual store owner has autonomy, and John Haronian says clients vary in how much interaction they have with his company.
Like many retail entities, the pandemic was a boon to stores supported by Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing. At the start, the company pivoted quickly to adjust to new customer expectations. “We try to monetize disruption and capitalize everything we can capitalize on, so when it came it was all hands on deck,” says vice president of business development Dan Pellegrino, noting that sales grew 30-40% last year.
Timing is everything. Just a couple of weeks before Covid-19 hit, select stores under the Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing umbrella began testing curbside delivery. That fortuitous timing meant stores were positioned to shift quickly. But the pandemic still caught everyone off guard, John says. The team scrambled to ensure health and safety guidelines were met and pivoted based on changing state and local guidelines.
“We were on top of it with a game plan,” John adds. “That’s what’s nice about having a franchise or consulting company because we did all that work for the individual stores. The state kept coming around to make sure that were in compliance, but there were no problems so we were allowed to stay open. We shortened our hours and we did everything we could to make sure the stores were safe not only for the customers, but also for our employees.
The company also launched mobile apps for each of its 14 locations, providing even more ease of service for customers. Today, each store’s contactless services include on-demand, same-day, and scheduled local delivery, as well as in-store and curbside pickup, both on-demand and scheduled. The Wines & More Walpole and Wareham locations also participate in intrastate shipping. “Bottom line, we had a tremendous increase in sales,” John says. “Frank did an outstanding job of making sure that the stores were able to get their product. Dan and his department were right on it with social media. Kathy was out there in all the stores, making sure that they got whatever they needed.”
With the worst of the pandemic seemingly in the rear-view mirror, Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing is resetting and preparing for the future. “Right now we’re coming back down to earth a little bit, trying to find a new baseline to where we are,” Pellegrino says. “I think we’ve definitely procured new consumers, especially with the online services that we provide. We’re seeing repetition in sales— it’s not just a one-time novelty kind of thing.”
In-store samplings and tastings have returned, and demand for those services that were so crucial during the pandemic—curbside and delivery—have waned a bit with more customers seeking an in-store experience.
Kathy Haronian says the company will continue to build its Cheers! value program, a loyalty and bonus point program tied to the company’s private label program, with an intention of “creating repeat customers by providing value and cementing trusting relationships with the consumer.”
The company has also shifted to an advertising and marketing approach based much more on social media. While the transition was underway prior to the pandemic, the disruptive event accelerated the shift. “We’re getting away from print,” Kathy says. “We used to do a lot of print ads and a lot of mailers. In 2022, we’re not going to do any print at all. We’re going to stick to social media and radio because we find that that’s the best thing for us.”
And just as each store has a unique product range geared toward its specific audience, marketing and advertising are targeted. “Our team uses various tools to provide site-specific personalization,” Pellegrino notes. “Through geo-targeted SEO and SEM, each store remains independent by servicing the population that surrounds it. Each store’s social media platform acts in the same way, highlighting store personnel and items catered to their customer.”
As a company, expansion could be part of the future. John says the company has explored options in Connecticut but thus far hasn’t made a move. “We are constantly looking to expand, but we have to make sure that wherever it is, or whoever joins us to buy a franchise or consultant agreement, that it fits into our model,” he says. “Yes, we’re ready to expand, but we’re specific about what we do and how we do it. We’re a very successful company and we want to remain that way.”