For nearly a century, Buehler’s Fresh Foods has served the grocery needs of its northeastern Ohio customer base. And in recent years, the chain has emphasized its commitment with a wide assortment of wines and beers and a growing role as a distilled spirits purveyor through its expanding partnership with the Ohio Division of Liquor Control (DOLC).
Based in New Philadelphia, Ohio, Buehler’s was founded by E.L. and Helen Buehler in 1929, with a focus on fresh produce and customer service. Over the years, four generations of Buehlers shepherded the company’s growth into a chain of more than a dozen stores. In 2017, Buehler’s was sold to its workers under an employee stock ownership program (ESOP). Today, the chain operates 14 supermarkets, eight liquor agencies, coffee shops, and a food truck (nicknamed “Ferris”).
All the supermarkets sell beer and wine, and six of them are licensed as agencies of the DOLC to sell spirits on consignment. In addition, Buehler’s now operates two free-standing liquor agencies that offer beer, wine, and spirits—North Court Beverage in Medina and Buehler’s Massillon Liquor Store in Massillon. Beer and wine account for about 8% of total store sales, according to Buehler’s beer, wine, and liquor director Ron James. Spirits aren’t factored into that number, as Buehler’s simply receives a commission from spirits sales from the state. James notes that of combined wine and beer sales, wine holds a 60% share to beer’s 40%. Following big gains in 2020 and 2021, combined wine and beer sales dropped slightly last year, he adds, with wine down 4% and beer up 1%. As for spirits, Buehler’s seven agencies open throughout 2022 combined for sales of $21 million; the eighth site, a free-standing agency in Galion, was added at mid-year.
“We’re committed to providing a wide range of high-quality beer and wine,” says Buehler’s president and CEO Mike Davidson. “We’re also committed to hiring and training knowledgeable staff to ensure that our customers receive the best advice and options for their needs. Ultimately, our goal is to be the preferred destination for beer and wine shopping in our market.”
As leader of the beverage team, James is tasked with maximizing sales and profitability, while working with suppliers on product assortment and availability. He’s a Buehler’s veteran of 43 years and has been involved with beverage alcohol there for about 20 years, becoming category director ten years ago. “That was around the time we started to get involved in liquor agencies, and with all the growth, Buehler’s leadership decided the category needed its own director,” James says.
The newly renovated Buehler’s store in Canton exemplifies the company’s interest in furthering growth of beverage alcohol, and could serve as a model going forward. While full-strength spirits aren’t sold at the site, wine and beer are showcased with some 212 linear feet devoted to wine and 72 linear feet to beer. In a first for the grocery chain, a self-serve beer and wine wall allows shoppers to pour their own portion-controlled drinks for on-premise consumption. The wall features 20 beers—many of which aren’t available in packages, as well as eight wines. Beer pours are priced at 50-75 cents a 2-ounce pour and wine at $1-$4 an ounce. “We positioned the wall near the beer and wine department to leverage sales,” James notes. “We think it’s going to do well.” Events that could attract up to 100 people are also planned for the store, including beer releases, tap takeovers, and brewer and winemaker visits, the retailer adds.
The chain stocks between 800 and 2,000 wine SKUs, generally priced from $6 a 750-ml. for the 2018 Fisheye Chardonnay to $250 for the 2017 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines priced at about $13 a bottle are the stores’ sweet spot. “Our offerings cross all spectrums to reach every budget,” James says. Space devoted to wine ranges from 48 to 212 linear feet, with 120 linear feet being the average. Locally produced wines, led by red blends, are among the best sellers at Buehler’s, with standouts including Troutman Red Farmer ($16 a 750-ml.) and Breitenbach Roadhouse ($12). Wines from Ohio and neighboring states are merchandised in a “regional” set within the wine section and are always on display because they sell so well, he notes.
Beyond local wines, California Cabernets and sparklers of all types are trending at Buehler’s. “We sell a ton of Josh Cabernet ($14 a 750-ml.),” James says. “And sparkling wine is on fire. It used to be that we just sold sparkling wine for the holidays, but now we’re selling it year-round.” He points to La Marca Prosecco ($19) as the chain’s top-selling sparkler. While still small in volume, better-for-you wines also appear promising, James adds, pointing to the likes of FitVine ($15-$19) and Yellow Tail Pure Bright ($7). To drive sales of wine, Buehler’s offers a 10% discount on the purchase of six bottles or more.
Depending on the location, Buehler’s features between 300 and 600 beer SKUs, generally priced from $7 for a 6-pack of 16-ounce cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to $14 for a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans of 3 Floyds Zombie Dust. The stores typically devote between 48 and 72 linear feet to beer. Like wine, locally produced beers perform best, according to James, who points to beers from the likes of Great Lakes Brewing and BrewDog as top performers. Buehler’s has even collaborated with nearby Millersburg Brewing on exclusive seasonal products that James says have been quite successful. While craft beer sales overall have fallen off slightly in recent years, the retailer sees opportunity for emerging 19.2-ounce craft singles, such as New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger ($3). “We’re expanding them into our cold box set as we’re seeing them really take off after a strong performance in c-stores,” James remarks.
As at other retail locations, demand for hard seltzers at Buehler’s has declined dramatically from a couple of years ago. “We’re cleaning out a lot of seltzers and replacing them with RTDs such as High Noon ($11 a 4-pack of 355-ml. cans) and Cutwater ($13),” says James, noting that the supermarkets are permitted to offer the lower-proof spirits-based drinks.
Spirits sales at the agency sites operated by Buehler’s have been strong, growing by 2.1% last year. In addition to the free-standing stores, grocery locations in Medina, Massillon, Milltown, New Philadelphia, Coshocton, and Ashland house liquor agencies, and allocate from 170-220 linear feet to the category. Buehler’s agency stores offer between 1,000 and 1,500 spirits SKUs, with selection determined by the DOLC. But the division allows requests for new products from the retailer and often grants approval for those additions. Top-selling spirts at Buehler’s include Tito’s vodka ($36 a 1.75-liter) and both Jack Daniel’s ($52) and Crown Royal Peach ($28 a 750-ml.) whiskies.
“We strive to maintain well-stocked and organized departments, with a focus on product availability and ensuring that items are easy to find for purchase,” says vice president of store operations Paul Stefaniuk. While supply constraints have been a concern for Buehler’s—as with other retailers—in recent years, James adds that the chain has worked with beverage alcohol suppliers to avoid out-of-stock scenarios by frequently buying in. Indeed, he says, the beverage alcohol department was minimally affected by supply challenges as compared to other in-store categories.
Buehler’s uses merchandising tools to drive impulse sales and to position itself as a leader in the category. “Our merchandising is focused on product visibility and accessibility, with clear signage and well-organized displays,” says director of operations Dave Cleckner. “Our aim is to create an inviting and inspiring shopping environment for our customers.” Wine and beer are even merchandised outside the department with frequent cross-category displays, such as wine in the seafood department and hard cider and sangria in the produce department. In-store complimentary sampling of new products by brand ambassadors occurs weekly, James notes. “A lot of retailers don’t offer them, so they help separate us from the competition,” he says. Weekly wine tastings led by a team member are also featured at the Canton store, where customers are charged a nominal fee for a pour.
James and Davidson take pride in the team members who serve Buehler’s beverage alcohol customers. “We put a lot of effort into our beer and wine teams,” James says, with training that includes product information, corporate modules and visits to local wineries and breweries. He adds that while remodelings like the one in Canton provide a lift to category sales, the staff makes the stores. “The thing that gets us through year after year is our stellar team,” he says. “They connect with the customers, develop a rapport, and make suggestions, which can be a huge driver of sales.”
Buehler’s would like nothing more than to further serve its customers by adding more liquor agencies. But the process is competitive, James notes. “Spirits are a high ring and can be a nice lift for the entire store if you have an agency,” he says. While there aren’t any immediate plans to add another agency, James believes Buehler’s is in a good position when the time comes. “With eight agency approvals already, the state obviously recognizes that we’re pretty good at it,” he says.