For more than 70 years, Morrell & Co. has been focused on the customer experience. The venerable wine retailer, which today does the vast majority of its business in ultra-premium and prestige wine labels, has always maintained a holistic approach to selling wine, choosing to focus on a full-service attitude that helps its upscale clientele with all facets of the wine experience. While much of the Morrell & Co. business has changed since the company’s founding in 1947—including the location of the main store and main warehouse—its ethos remains the same: Represent the best of the best from the world’s key wine regions to fulfill all of the needs of its high-end wine buying clientele.
From a marketing perspective, this means allowing the company’s sales team to develop personal relationships with shoppers. Morrell & Co. aims to act as a wine concierge in the retail space, offering a comprehensive guest experience. “We went back to a very personal, old-school touch,” says Morrell & Co. president and CEO Jeremy Noye. “We’ve developed a really good, strong, and robust sales team that’s focused on helping and assisting our clientele. We’ve cultivated a team of professionals who take care of a roster of clients, who help them with whatever their wine needs might be. That is our key marketing tactic.”
For Morrell & Co.’s dedication to helping customers navigate wine, and for encouraging its staff to act as the gatekeepers to the store and buying experience, the company earns this year’s Market Watch Leaders Alumni Best Marketing award.
The concept of the wine steward is perfected at Morrell & Co. With just one store in midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, Morrell boasts an extensive roster of upscale clientele who remain loyal to the business for their high-end wine needs. The company employs just 24 people, and it encourages them to act as agents for Morrell, cementing their role as marketers as well as salespeople. The staff helps facilitate all aspects of the wine buying and owning experience for clients, from purchasing, cellaring, and meal planning to resale and acquisitions of allocated labels.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that when you walk into our store, our people are very knowledgeable and passionate about wine,” Noye explains. “Our people are there to help and they have the tools and resources to do that fully.” He adds that in the early days, like most wine retailers, Morrell & Co.—which was founded in 1947 on East 49th Street in New York City by Samuel Morrell and his wife, Charlotte—tried to offer something for everyone, though always with a higher-end mentality. It wasn’t until 60-plus years later, when Noye came on board in 2014, that the business committed fully to the upper echelon of wine retail. “Morrell is not the everyday wine shop where people just pop in,” Noye adds. “We do have that, but it’s not the core of who we are.”
Along with encouraging its staff to act as guides for the wine buying process, Morrell & Co. takes advantage of some traditional marketing materials, including an annual catalog and regular email blasts. But both are done on a level that’s well beyond traditional. Morrell’s catalog generally comes out in advance of the holiday shopping season and it’s more reminiscent of an upscale magazine than a shopper’s guide. The catalog has content about key wine regions, with stories about interesting producers and wine labels, as well as top-notch photography. Many wines are listed with notes on their production and key flavor profiles, as well as with their ratings and prices. Morrell’s email efforts are similarly crafted, containing robust content to engage with readers.
“We tell the story of the producer, the place, and the specific wine,” Noye says. “We try to give information about why the wine stands out, why it’s compelling or unique, and about the producer and the category to get more in depth.”
These efforts double as advertising initiatives, of course, and Noye says they’ve become a key piece of the company’s identity. Just as Morrell’s marketing has become more sophisticated, so too has its advertising as the company has embraced digital mediums. Along with Google ads and targeted spots on social media, Morrell uses its own website, online search engine optimization, and its dedicated mobile app to interact with customers, which all complements its marketing outreach.
“We keep up with the outward-facing side of technology, but we do what we can internally too, so that our team has the most up-to-date and timely information available to assist our clientele,” Noye says. “Our website is very adaptive to tablets, mobile, and computers, but the biggest piece for technology is getting to know our clientele, what they buy, and their browsing trends so our team is able to really work and manage their needs with our wine availability and allocations.”
Growth And Change
Over nearly 80 years, Morrell & Co. has evolved immensely while also staying true to the core of the business its founders envisioned. “Like many of the old stores, Morrell was founded on the classics,” Noye says, pointing to Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other French wine regions, as well as California—for which Morrel was an early buyer on the East Coast—as the anchors for its wine business. “Morrell was really built into a substantial fine wine destination.”
While the business was launched by Samuel Morrell in 1947, Samuel and his brother Joseph had been involved in the beverage alcohol business for decades prior. They were wine salespeople in the 1920s and during Prohibition worked as vintners for New York City’s churches, synagogues, and medical practices. When they parted ways, Samuel took an interest in wine retail, and the Morrell & Co. wine shop remained a family business for more than 65 years, with three generations of the family working in the store. The family sold the business in 2013 and Noye came on in 2014, during a time of remarkable growth in both the wine industry and consumer wine consumption.
“Since 2014, the wine market has grown and price points have stretched, and global collecting has completely changed,” Noye says. “We decided we couldn’t be everything to everybody and we realized what Morrell does best and what we’re known for, which is the classics, the blue-chip collectible wines. We focus on high-end wines. Our entry point for retail starts at $50 and goes up from there. We’re focused on noteworthy wines from key regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Barolo, Napa, Sonoma. We still look to do work with emerging regions and emerging producers, but we’re more selective in the vetting process of that.”
Noye, a 2020 Market Watch Leader, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and his resume includes years of wine service experience in restaurants before he transitioned to wine buying at the retail tier. Off-premise, Noye worked for fellow Market Watch Leader Zachys Wine & Liquor and for Crush Wine & Spirits before joining Morrell. Along with operating a high-profile New York City store, Morrell has also dabbled in the on-premise by managing a wine bar for several years and was also heavily involved in the upscale wine auction market. The wine bar has since closed and Noye says there are no plans to reopen it, however he says the company hopes to get back into wine auctions soon.
“We had some interest to venture back into auctions but the pandemic shifted our timeline and plans,” Noye says. He adds that the company’s wine auction license remains active and notes that while there is no concrete timeline to re-enter the auction world, it’s something he plans to pursue. “We’ve built a clientele base of fine wine collectors and consumers over the years, and have built a network of people who’ve realized we are one of the largest fine wine destinations on the East Coast,” Noye says. “The first year of Covid-19 had a big impact and slowed business down, but during that time we stayed true to who we are and did not modify our business model. Year two of Covid was a humongous success and a tremendous retail year. Last year started strong, but we saw a leveling out period. Now, it’s come back down to a more typical and traditional volume.”
The company did keep busy during the Covid-19 pandemic though, making a major warehouse move that came to fruition this year. Morrell acquired a new, larger warehouse during the pandemic that Noye says is now the permanent home of the company’s retail warehousing, wine storage, and fulfillment operations, which fall under the umbrella of a business called Vintage Wine Warehouse. From its previous space in Queens, New York, Morrell now has a 35,000-square-foot space in Briarcliff Manor, New York, located in Westchester County. The new warehouse is 25% larger than its predecessor and will allow Morrell to expand its wine storage operations and speed up its order fulfillment and processing for existing clientele. Noye says the new warehouse will tie into Morrell’s marketing and advertising efforts as the business promotes the new space.
With Morrell’s high-end inventory and upscale retail mentality, it’s no surprise that the company’s top-selling products are all ultra-premium labels. Morrell’s total annual revenues top $25 million and 85% of that total comes from wine, with luxury spirits making up the remaining 15%. Noye says Bordeaux and Champagne are currently the fastest-moving wine regions for the company. Top labels include wines from such producers as Château Lynch-Bages ($185 a 750-ml.), Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande ($250), Château Léoville-Poyferré ($200), and Château Cos d’Estournel ($250) from Bordeaux; Louis Roederer Cristal ($350), Louis Roederer Collection ($58), Dom Pérignon ($285), and Veuve Clicquot ($64) from Champagne; Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia ($269) and Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve ($185) from Italy; and Dominus ($359) from California. In all, Morrell stocks 3,000-5,000 wine SKUs in its inventory.
Spirits are a much smaller portion of sales for Morrell, but the company does put an equally upscale focus on collectible offerings. Some of Morrell’s top-performing spirits include Scotches from The Macallan and Tequilas from Casa Dragones and Clase Azul (spirits range from $85-$500 a 750-ml.). The company stocks roughly 500 spirits SKUs and Noye says the focus is always on brown spirits and collectible labels.
The Morrell & Co. storefront inside Rockefeller Plaza in the heart of Manhattan only spans 800 square feet and Noye likens it to a showroom, as he says the physical store serves as a vehicle to meet potential clients. He adds that more than half of the company’s sales come from transactions conducted by the sales team directly with their clients and that a quarter of sales come from online transactions. Sales within the physical store make up the smallest percentage of total sales.
“The sales team manages existing clientele and develops new clientele, and they manage the relationships, which is the core part of our business,” Noye explains. “We definitely service a historic wine buyer. We have an established clientele, but we’re also engaging with younger demographics and meeting with younger collectors.”
Noye adds that the reaction from people who walk into the store is always “wow,” as the Manhattan site displays the biggest names in wine on its shelves. That selection and inventory is what sets Morrell apart from the competition in The Big Apple. “Foremost, it’s about acquiring the high-end inventory our clientele wants, and with that, the service, follow-through, storage, and delivery,” he says. “Those are the key pieces that help set us apart.”
The new warehouse is also a differentiator, and it’s located in a wealthy suburb of Manhattan that the team hopes will further expand its audience. The space will be Morrell’s new home for fulfillment and allow the company to further grow its storage business for clients, and will also fold into the auction business down the line. “We plan on refining, focusing more on collectible classic wines and on making long-term plans to increase our cellar for future sales,” Noye says. “Morrell is the only wine retailer to do a holistic, full-service approach to touch all of the consumers’ needs for wine.”