Uncorking what keeps independent liquor stores afloat

Party planning is all about juggling time and money and that's particularly true when it comes to the booze. You can buy alcohol almost anywhere these days, but the prices can vary depending on where you shop. It's cheaper at big-box stores like Costco, and discount houses like BevMo!, even at the big grocery chains. But savings aside, shopping at those places also means you miss out on a certain something. That's what independent liquor stores aim to provide and it's what has kept places like John and Pete's Fine Wines & Spirits in West Hollywood, Calif., in business. I went there to find out what they market and how,  and I met owner Pete Burra, Jr. He told me that this year he's noticed a difference between what his store can offer consumers versus big chains.

"There's a much greater level of competition than there was two years ago. The supermarket chains -- specifically Ralphs, Pavilions, Vons -- have a price war going because they have their own competition with the big-box stores and Walmart and Trader Joe's. They've taken their market share of their grocery sales. So to get them back, they are discounting a lof of prices," said Burra. "People, if they want to buy six bottles of a specific item, they can get it at cost -- or sometimes less than cost -- if they go to those chains. But they need to buy six bottles. Most people want one bottle of Champagne. So that level of competitiion is tougher to deal with than the big-box stores."

In fact, one of Burra's major competitors just opened up three short blocks away from his shop. Burra is soft spoken and examines his inventory like a proud, protective papa. As I looked across his 4,000-square-foot floor, I saw boxes and boxes of wines stacked under handwritten signs, organized by country of origin and type of grape. All told, there are 5,000 items in his inventory with prices that aren't exactly bargain basement. For example, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot French Champagne sells for $54.99 at John and Pete's Fine Wines & Spirits. You can buy the same bottle for anywhere between $15 to $18 less at a membership club store or a supermarket chain. Pete knows he can't top big-store prices and rarely tries. In order to keep his mostly young, upscale clientele happy, he has to offer more in order to sell more.

"We have a different level of service than most businesses, most stores. The independentness of us allows us to be flexible with our customers," said Burra. "I have a different mix of product than supermarkets and chain stores -- much more specialized."

For instance, the special selection of Burgundy wines he sells -- for a wide range of prices, $30 to $300 -- can't be found in big-box stores. And he delivers to local customers--even during their parties.  He has three delivery trucks to serve his customers' needs.

"There definitely is the concept that a smaller, independent store is going to be higher [priced] than the chain stores and to some extent sometimes that's true. But when you go to the supermarket, you see a wide variety of things there for sale and they're always 20 percent, 10 percent off. But they start with a higher price. I start with a fair price and sometimes it's competitive," said Burra.

So there you have it! Your local liquor store could be more expensive, but in exchange you may get a better selection, more convenience, and a degree of expertise that the big stores don't usually offer. I'll leave the decision in your hands -- happy holiday shopping, everyone!

About the author

Veteran journalist Tony Cox has joined American Public Media as guest host of Marketplace Money.

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