Few people in the beverage industry have a retail pedigree that can compare with the resume of Troy Rice. The COO of drinks store behemoth Total Wine & More has worked in beverage alcohol for only five years, but he’s been involved in the retail channel for more than three decades, holding major leadership roles at some of the largest store chains in the country. In his short time with Total Wine & More, Rice has helped the company’s sales surge past $5 billion a year while embracing digital technologies to modernize business, encouraging continued expansion and entry into new markets, and navigating the global pandemic.
Rice joined Total Wine in 2017 as its chief stores officer and was promoted to COO this past April. Prior to joining Total Wine, Rice was COO and president of retail for Office Depot, and he has also served as an executive vice president at Toys “R” Us and a division president at Home Depot. Rice says he was attracted to Total Wine & More because of its focus on the customer and on its local communities, as well as its commitment to staff education and product knowledge.
“I have really fallen in love with the business, the producers, and our team and the passion they have for the products we sell,” Rice says. “Our strategies remain consistent. We’re focused on innovating, digitizing, and automating the business where we can to provide a better customer experience and a better experience for our team members.”
For his business acumen and retail success, Rice earns a spot among the 2021 Market Watch Leaders class.
Rice spends a lot of time in Total Wine & More stores. He estimates that he spends at least half of every month traveling to locations to watch the stores function and to learn about individual markets, and he also consults with Total Wine founders David and Robert Trone regularly. David is now a congressman, representing Maryland in the House of Representatives, while Robert is still involved in the stores and listed as a co-owner. The Trones entrusted Rice with guiding their business forward using his knowledge from previous retail companies, and so far he’s been excelling in that role.
In 2018, the year after Rice joined Total Wine & More, the company put a major emphasis on its online business and digital platforms. Along with overhauling the website, Total Wine aimed to modernize many facets of its business with new digital technologies, including a transition to digital records and processes and new infrastructure that supported updated WiFi and point-of-sale services, and inventory location software, as well as handheld devices that can provide real-time data to store managers and employees about products and supply. Rice supported this key initiative and says it was massively important to Total Wine being able to so quickly and successfully adapt to changing market conditions during Covid-19.
“In 2018 we began laying the foundation for a major digital overhaul of the company and that work continued into 2019,” Rice explains. “That work enabled us to lean on those investments significantly as the pandemic unfolded. We were able to start curbside pickup in a matter of weeks and we digitized our curbside and in-store pickup, and our delivery. Last year was challenging, but we did everything we could to come through it with a strong focus on the health and safety of our team members and our customers.”
Rice touts Total Wine’s innovation and says that’s an area of emphasis going forward. For staff training, the company is now using online and video platforms, setting up video meetings so that wine and spirits producers can speak directly to store associates through the internet, allowing nationwide training seminars to happen in a single meeting. Beyond internet and technology-based upgrades, Rice is also pioneering several in-store efforts to boost Total Wine’s performance. Rice estimates that as many as 50 stores will get a makeover this year to better reflect their sales trends. This means changing product and space allocations to reflect what’s happening in each individual market, and in many instances adding more room for spirits while highlighting different types of wines. The stores are making more room for Bourbon and Tequila, and also reformatting the wine areas to include special sections for Italian labels and a new “Legends of Wine” display.
Rice says the revamped Italian wine areas feature an ambiance that aims to transport shoppers to Italy, complete with new signage, displays, and food products. Meanwhile, Legends of Wine highlights a rotating roster of well-known winemakers, from Caymus’ Chuck Wagner to Kendall-Jackson’s Julia Jackson, showcasing photos and product information in special wine displays.
“We continue to think about how we can make our stores more experiential for our customers,” Rice says. “We want to ensure we have the right space allocations in stores, based off sales, to stay current and make sure we have the right products and display footage for those products. I’m all about continuing to lean on the foundation that David and Robert built, with the best prices, best selection, and best service to drive an outstanding customer experience.”
Like most retail outlets, Total Wine & More benefited from big growth during 2020, when consumer shopping patterns shifted heavily to the off-premise during Covid-19. The company’s revenue grew from $3 billion in 2019 to more than $5 billion last year, and its sales breakdown also shifted, as spirits stole share from wine and beer. Today, wine makes up 42% of total sales, spirits comprise 40%, beer has 13%, and accessories have 5%. Total Wine has 215 stores across 26 states and expects to be at 230 stores and 27 states by the end of this year.
Total Wine opened its first stores in Louisiana and Indiana last year and is making more moves in the Midwest this year, including entering Michigan for the first time. The first Michigan outpost was expected at press time to open in Grand Rapids in July. In addition, Rice says Total Wine will make its debut in San Diego this fall, which is a new market, and is also exploring new opportunities in Texas. “We’re continuing to expand,” Rice says. “We see brick and mortar as being essential to our future growth and we have a lot of opportunities ahead. There are a lot of complexities that come with being a retailer across 26 states. The key is having leaders at the local level who are in touch with their customers and the community. That’s what we focus on.”
Rice says keeping a local focus remained critical even during the pandemic, when shopping trends shifted toward online and digital platforms. During Covid-19, Total Wine’s internet sales tripled, and Rice says they remain about double what they were in 2019. Even so, he says that there’s been a shift in 2021 back to in-store shopping, with big growth in premium products. To that end, Total Wine resumed in-store tastings this spring, where legal, and Rice expects the stores’ classrooms and meeting spaces to reopen this fall.
“We see customers returning to a more normal shopping experience,” Rice adds. “We want to deliver the service we’re known for. We view Total Wine as a destination and an experience. We bring the breadth of assortment and the value of price, along with the convenience of having great associates and the digital capabilities to deliver to our customers.”
Wine leads sales at Total Wine, though spirits are now close behind. Rice says wines priced higher than $50 a bottle are growing and notes that Champagnes are on an upswing. Sweet wines and flavored selections are also doing well. The company remains committed to its private label wines too and has recently launched the Cara Mello brand, which has a sweet and fruity flavor profile. Total Wine generally stocks about 5,500 wine SKUs in its stores. Top-selling labels include Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut ($50 a 750-ml.), Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon ($74), Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($11), and Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon ($63).
In spirits, Tequila has become a major growth category, though Bourbon still leads overall. Rice says Total Wine is experimenting with its own flavored Tequilas and whiskies to boost its private label program. The stores stock about 5,000 spirits SKUs. Top-sellers include Tito’s vodka ($28 a 1.75-liter), Don Julio 1941 Tequila ($152 a 750-ml.), Jack Daniel’s Black label Tennessee whiskey ($36 a 1.75-liter), Hennessy VS Cognac ($37 a 750-ml.), and Crown Royal Canadian whisky ($41 a 1.75-liter). Maker’s Mark Bourbon and Patrón and Clase Azul Tequilas are also doing well.
Hard seltzers and RTD offerings are dominating beer sales at Total Wine, though Rice notes that beers from big-name breweries did very well during the pandemic and seasonal brews have been popular this year. Total Wine offers roughly 2,800 beer, seltzer, and RTD SKUs. Top-sellers at the retailer include Corona Extra ($27 a 24-pack of 12-ounce bottles), Bud Light ($20 a 24-pack of 12-ounce cans), Michelob Ultra ($22 a 24-pack of 12-ounce cans), and White Claw ($16 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans). Other top movers range from Miller Lite and Coors Light (both $21 a 24-pack of 12-ounce cans) to variety packs of Truly Lemonade and High Noon ($15 and $28 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans, respectively).
“Because of our store layout and design, we have a broad consumer appeal,” Rice says. “We showcase premium products in a way that few others can and we’re unique because we have truly passionate employees. I work closely with David and Robert Trone and consider myself fortunate that they’re available because of their extensive experience in the business. I definitely lean on them when necessary and collaborate with them on Total Wine & More’s go-forward strategies. Our ability to innovate has accelerated.”