Breadth of selection is everything at Tempe, Arizona’s Tops Liquors. With intense competition from supermarkets, chain stores, club stores and rival independent retailers, Tops has carved a niche in the crowded market as a one-stop shop for a broad array of beer, wine and spirits. “Our biggest asset is our variety,” says co-owner Greg Eccles. “That’s what gets people to drive by all the other stores. We carry it all—every Smirnoff, every Three Olives, every brand I can get my hands on. And we’ve got well over 1,000 different beers from around the world.”
Greg Eccles and his father, Bob Eccles, purchased Tops Liquors in 1981, and 10 years later, the family bought Sun Devil Liquors in nearby Mesa. The stores have similar philosophies, but different atmospheres. Tops is just down the road from Arizona State University and garners much of its business from the school’s students, faculty and staff. Sun Devil has a slightly more upscale feel and a similar product mix, but the store is larger and offers a wine storage service.
Greg Eccles was just out of college when his father convinced him to partner on the acquisition of Tops Liquors in 1981. Bob Eccles knew the beverage alcohol business, having worked for a beer distributor, and viewed Tops as a great opportunity. He convinced his son to invest the money from a car accident settlement in the store. “I wanted to name it Broken Legs and Kegs, but we couldn’t afford to change the sign,” Greg Eccles says.
The pair used their college ties and beer background to develop a brisk keg party business. “We made sales presentations to all the fraternities,” Greg Eccles says. “Within about a month, we had every fraternity purchasing from us. Back in the day we were selling between 75 and 150 kegs a week.”
Bob Eccles’ daughter Trish Ogorek, who is now a part-owner of Tops, says those early days laid the groundwork for a long and strong beer connection. “Beer has always been about 50 percent of sales,” she says. “It’s what we’ve built the business on.”
Ogorek also joined the family company at an early age. She worked at Tops while attending college, and when the opportunity arose to purchase Sun Devil, she and her sister, Lori Eccles DeLoach, pooled resources with their father and brother to make the deal. Ogorek now serves as active manager of the store. In recent years, the Tops ownership structure has shifted. Bob Eccles has retired, and Greg Eccles now owns 67 percent of the business, while Ogorek and Eccles DeLoach have a combined 33-percent stake. Greg Eccles’ son and daughter are also involved in the company.
Tops currently generates around $3 million in annual revenues—double the total sales of Sun Devil, which has the larger footprint. That store comprises roughly 9,400 square feet over two levels, with a significant portion of the basement floor devoted to the wine bar and wine storage. Tops has about 4,000 square feet of selling space, with an adjacent wine and beer bar adding another 1,000 square feet.
Tom Bersano, field sales manager for Diageo products at Alliance Beverage Distributing Co., says Tops Liquors is among the top 10 retailers in the Phoenix-Tempe-Mesa area. “Sun Devil is a bit further down the line, but is still definitely holding its own,” he adds.
“One of their greatest strengths is Greg’s ability to change with the business,” Bersano says, noting the shift over the past three decades away from kegs and into craft beers. While both stores still sell their fair share of kegs, stricter university policies have reduced demand. Where kegs have fallen off, craft beer is picking up the slack.
Bob Eccles recalls the company’s early commitment to craft. “The craft beer business really helped us expand because nobody in the valley carried a fraction of what we carried,” he explains, noting the first craft boom in the 1990s. While craft beer’s popularity ebbed and flowed in subsequent years, the sector is currently white hot.
“There’s a beer revolution going on in this country,” says Greg Eccles, who is a certified Cicerone. “What’s happening in craft already happened in the wine market, with smaller companies challenging the status quo. The craft brewers are still a relatively small share of the total beer business, but they sure have the big boys scared. I make a lot of money off Budweiser and Coors, but I think consumers are really going for the flavor on the craft side.”
In fact, beer from Tempe brewery Four Peaks outsells Budweiser at Tops despite its premium price of $8.99 a six-pack of bottles versus $6.49 for Bud Light. The store carries a total of roughly 2,000 beer SKUs, drawing enthusiasts from around the metropolitan area. “We allow people to buy singles—in fact, we promote it,” Greg Eccles says. “A customer will grab one for $1.50, another for $2, a third bottle for $3.99 and on up. Before you know, he or she is walking out with a $17 six-pack. On a Friday night, I’ll sell 60 mixed six-packs in one night.” Sun Devil has similar beer strategies but a smaller selection at roughly 1,500 SKUs.
Beer accounts for about 50 percent of sales at both stores, followed by spirits at about 25 percent, wine at 15 percent and miscellaneous items at 10 percent. Both Tops and Sun Devil carry about 1,200 wine SKUs. Tops has 1,700 spirits SKUs, while Sun Devil stocks 1,500 spirits SKUs. “Vodka is still hot and whisk(e)y is on the rise,” Greg Eccles says. “The small local distilleries that are popping up are getting a lot of traction.” He points to Arizona Distillery’s Copper City Bourbon ($41.99 a 750-ml. bottle), which is produced in Tempe.
As with the beer selection, both Sun Devil and Tops have a broad range of spirits and wine covering nearly all types and price sectors. Local and unique items are particularly hot. The stores recently partnered with George Dickel Distillery in Tennessee for a single barrel whiskey, which will feature a designation of “specially selected by” Tops or Sun Devil on the label. Tops is taking that a step further. “The distillery is going to ship the 25 cases back here, along with the barrel,” Greg Eccles says. “Four Peaks will fill it with oatmeal stout and then the brewery will sell the aged beer back to me.”
Both stores have partnered on similar offerings with other spirits brands, including Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, Bulleit Bourbon and Don Julio Tequila. “It’s an easy sell,” Ogorek says. “It’s a story to talk about and adds a personal touch.”
Local is also resonating on the wine side, particularly wines from Jerome, Arizona–based Caduceus Cellars, which typically sell for about $50 a bottle and are in very limited release outside of the state. The winery is owned by Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of the band Tool. “We get people coming out of the woodwork for these wines,” Greg Eccles says. “He really helped put Arizona wines on the map.”
Raising The Bar
Both retail locations feature on-premise components. At Sun Devil, the downstairs Sun Devil Wine Cellar & Pub is used mainly for wine tastings, although that business has waned in recent years due to new policies. “We were dealing with a lot of people who just wanted free wine,” Greg Eccles says. “The purpose of the wine tastings was to educate customers about the wine so they’d buy it. We decided on a $5 charge, and instead of getting 80 to 100 people, we’d get 25. It got rid of all the freeloaders.” Ogorek says the weekly crowd is currently around 10 to 15 people, who pay $5 to try four or five 2-ounce wine pours.
Sun Devil also hosts beer tastings, which have grown in popularity recently. The bar has eight tap handles, and the store plans to add six more to keep up with competition. There’s also a growing demand to use the space for private parties and meetings. At the Tempe store, the Taste of Tops bar was conceived as primarily a wine venue, but beer is becoming a larger component. Taste of Tops offers 24 taps ($6 to $9 a pour) and about 500 beers ($2.50 to $15 a bottle or can), as well as a rotating selection of 20 wines by the glass ($5 to $10). Beer tasting flights are $8 for four 5-ounce pours.
In addition to retail sales of wine, Sun Devil also provides wine storage, which takes up about half of the lower level. Some patrons elect to keep beer there as well. The temperature-controlled facility features rows of wire crates with individual locks, and patrons are charged a monthly fee of $2 a case. “We want the space to stay full, so we keep it simple,” Ogorek says.
Sun Devil also has a vibrant business in handling wines for direct-to-consumer companies. For Direct Wines International and WineDirect, Sun Devil simply serves as the retail stop in the three-tier system before the wines are delivered using a separate service. For custom-label firm Windsor Vineyards, Sun Devil handles delivery throughout the state. “The wine is shipped first to a wholesaler and then hits us before being sent to customers,” Ogorek explains. “We all get a piece of the pie, but it adds up.”
As with many independent retailers in states where grocery, big box, drug and convenience stores can sell alcoholic beverages, the competitive pressures are always present for Tops and Sun Devil. “Arizona is a huge chain state,” Greg Eccles says, estimating that nearly three-quarters of on- and off-premise sales are done through chains. “All those guys are competition, and it’s sometimes hard for a mom-and-pop business to keep up. We try to charge a fair price and provide good service.”
But the big point of difference is selection. “We don’t do what everybody else does,” Greg Eccles says. “We’ve pushed variety hard, and it’s really paid dividends for us. That’s the backbone of our business.”