When the largest independent beverage retailer in the U.S. puts a renewed focus on its website and mobile technology platforms, shoppers across the country take note. Total Wine & More, the Maryland-based retailer with roughly 200 stores in 23 states, recently launched a completely overhauled website, a new mobile app, and technology-driven back-of-house business improvements, resulting in an upgraded and streamlined experience for online shoppers and smartphone users. These efforts, coupled with the company’s continued investment in customer service and its steady growth over the past couple decades, have earned Total Wine & More the 2019 Market Watch Leaders Best Website Award.
Much has changed at Total Wine since the first store debuted in 1991. From humble beginnings to a nationwide footprint, the company has grown tremendously, and its dedication to technology advances has steadily increased. Total Wine’s annual revenue is more than $3 billion, and the website and online sales are a solid contributor to that total. The company has a full staff dedicated to running its website, app, and other technology initiatives, a testament to its commitment to staying at the forefront of emerging retail sales tools.
“For the last few years, a key goal within Total Wine has been to focus on developing a high-quality team within the stores and corporate office,” says co-owner Robert Trone. “In addition to investing in our people, we’ve heavily invested in technology, including a new mobile app, a greatly improved website, and analytics that help our team members deliver first-rate products and services to enhance our customers’ experiences.”
Robert and his brother, David, opened their first beverage alcohol retail store in 1991 in Clayton, Delaware, under the Liquor World moniker. Eight years later, after acquiring D.C.-area chain Total Beverage, they changed the name to Total Wine & More and began rapidly expanding. The company, which is now headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, started 2019 with 193 stores in 23 states and plans to add 14 additional units this year, bringing its total count up to 207 stores. Though David was elected a Maryland congressman last year, both brothers still serve as co-owners, and Total Wine’s senior leadership team manages much of the company’s daily operations.
“The vast majority of the work and processes that help run our business today are performed or aided by computers and sophisticated custom software that allows us to make split-second decisions,” Robert says. “As we adapt to an industry that’s less dependent on general advertisement and more focused on personalization, we’re increasingly interacting with customers through our loyalty programs, online, and on social media.”
Chief technology officer Tom Kooser manages Total Wine’s online activity. Kooser says website and app sales have grown significantly and are a key tool in attracting new consumers. “The incredible advances in technology allow retailers to connect with shoppers in new ways and provide new experiences, services, and shopping channels,” he explains. “At Total Wine, we embrace change and deliver the best possible prices, selection, and service in our stores and through our rapidly expanding digital connections.”
The company’s website, Totalwine.com, looks vastly different than it did when it was originally launched, and it has since been supplemented with the Total Wine app that went live in 2017. The smartphone and tablet app boasts label-recognition capabilities and includes wayfinding technology to help shoppers locate specific products in the store. In addition, it can scan barcodes in stores to provide shoppers with more information about a particular wine, spirit, or beer.
Total Wine employs a team of in-house personnel to manage the website and app, but also uses external services for certain facets of the digital interface. The fact that the company is able to staff so much of its own online operations is a boon to business. “We have a passionate and rapidly growing in-house team of digital product owners, engineers, merchants, analysts, and marketers,” Kooser says. “Having so much talent in-house means we can move faster and keep a sharp focus on what we care about most—our customers. We use top-of-the-line technology and tools that we’ve built ourselves to make the delivery of our products and services faster, more secure, and more scalable.”
The nature of online retail requires immediacy, which is a tricky proposition for many traditional beverage retailers. Total Wine continues to push boundaries in this arena. Kooser says consumers expect top-notch digital content from an industry-leading company like Total Wine, and adds that his team has completely retooled its approach to managing the website and app.
“We realized that our early efforts were good, but not good enough,” Kooser explains. “We’ve built a platform that’s more flexible, allowing us to constantly upgrade to support our customers’ changing needs. We can’t move fast enough with our digital offerings. We used to update our site in batch format about four times a year—now we release new features every two weeks, sometimes even more often.”
In-store pickup has been growing, thanks to Total Wine’s website and app. The service allows shoppers to make selections on their computers or phones and retrieve them in-store in as little as two hours. Kooser says the success of this program has encouraged the company to invest more capital into in-store pickup, from faster digital technologies to dedicated pick-up counters in stores. Direct shipping is also part of this effort, though changing alcohol shipping laws often make it difficult. Currently, Total Wine can ship to 13 states.
While much of the company’s digital work involves customer-facing technologies, there are significant components behind the scenes that can’t be ignored. “We’re investing in technology for all areas of our business, including the stores, merchandising, supply chain, marketing, data infrastructure, and many other core internal processes,” Kooser says. “Our back-end systems have changed. We’ve built back-end tools and internal services, and these are all on a modern, cloud-native platform that is built for continued scaling.”
All About Information
Along with product listings, Totalwine.com has a wealth of information. The website has sections that deal with event planning for businesses and weddings, as well as consumer guides for wine, spirits, and beer that provide details on production regions and winemakers, distillers, and brewers. The site also has a comprehensive events calendar that lists myriad tastings and activities by store, as well as custom sales tools that guide consumers through private-label options and the prestige concierge service. The “Winery Direct” and “Spirits Direct” areas detail Total Wine’s extensive selection of hard-to-find and exclusive labels, listing more than 2,000 wines and 900 spirits, while the concierge service aims to attract high-end consumers who are seeking specific allocated and collectible wines.
These efforts—along with Total Wine’s extensive social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—all help to create a complete online presence. “We see our digital properties as an extension of who we are, offering fantastic experience, service, and products at great prices,” Kooser says. “We want customers to have a great experience, whether they choose to shop online or in store, and to engage with Total Wine in ways that make their lives easier. Digital technology has grown overall sales significantly. New customers are drawn to Total Wine because of our digital experiences and e-commerce properties.”
Total Wine has become a destination in its markets for its vast product selection. The average store is 20,000-30,000 square feet and stocks approximately 8,000 wines, 3,000 spirits, and 2,500 beers. Wine makes up 45% of total company sales, followed by spirits at 35%, beer at 15%, and miscellaneous items at 5%. The company boasts more than 7,000 employees across its 200-plus units nationwide.
Premium wines continue to be a big mover, and Trone says wines priced at $20 or more are growing at a faster rate than their lower-priced counterparts. Sparkling labels, imports, and domestic Cabernet Sauvignons have seen the biggest gains recently. Spirits are also doing well—often outpacing wine in growth. Tequilas and American whiskies are particularly strong, and consumers are showing major interest in locally produced labels. Robert adds that the company’s beer business has been contracting by volume but growing in sales, though at a slow rate. Total Wine focuses on local beers in most markets to appeal to consumers who seek regional products.
“Our core customer skews toward the higher end of the wine and spirits categories,” Robert says. “Our spirits business is growing faster than our wine and beer businesses. We believe this will continue, and so we’re aggressively looking to expand our spirits selection. We’ve implemented new training programs to improve our customer service for spirits consumers and, in states where it’s legal, we’ve increased the number of spirits tastings and educational events.”
Even though Total Wine & More has a large nationwide presence, the company emphasizes serving the local communities where each of its stores are located. Last year, Total Wine’s in-kind and cash donations reached $9.5 million, impacting some 13,000 charities and non-profit groups across 23 states. Social media helps in this regard, connecting stores with their local communities, while also providing information on in-store events, seasonal specials, and local product recommendations.
“Beyond selection, price, and experience, our level of customer service is what makes us different from competitors,” Robert says. “We’re working aggressively to improve in-store facilities, reformat new stores, and remodel older ones. Our goal is to ensure that our stores are fresh, clean, easy to shop, well-lit, and well-merchandised, all of which is important for providing an exceptional shopping experience.”
Future growth is also imminent. In addition to adding 14 units in 2019, Total Wine expects to open 20 stores next year, bringing its total count up to 227 stores by the end of 2020. Most of these new locations will be in existing states, though Trone says the company will pursue new markets as opportunities arise.
“Total Wine continues to grow in both store count and comp store sales,” Robert says. “We’ve improved our efforts to provide products that are relevant to each local community.” Kooser adds that the company is also working to better provide the information and digital services customers demand. “We live in an age of immediacy and at Total Wine, we find this to be a wonderful challenge,” Kooser says. “We’ve invested heavily in an omnichannel ‘brick-and-click’ strategy to ensure our digital experience is as satisfying as the in-store