End of state's liquor role will bring major competition for Wine World
When David LeClaire conceived and launched Wine World Warehouse in late 2010, his vision was to be the "big dog on the block" of wine stores in the Northwest. But 16 months later, he's hoping to map a strategy to keep his wine superstore successful in the face of the pending arrival of the 900-pounds gorillas of the business.
The "gorillas" are the two $1 billion players for whom Washington State held no interest because the state controlled the business of selling liquor, which is a key source of revenue for the multi-state operations of Total Wine & More, and BevMo! That lack of interest by the biggest players was part of the impetus when LeClaire decided a couple of years ago to pursue his longtime goal of a wine superstore in Seattle and gathered a team of investors. But the competitive world changed, of course, with overwhelming voter approval last November of Initiative 1183, which puts the state out of the liquor business on June 1. Grocery stores and others with over 10,000 square feet of space will begin legally selling spirits for the first time since the start of Prohibition. The websites of both Concord, CA-based Total Wine and Connecticut-based BevMo! now tout that Washington residents will soon be able to take advantage of their discount prices of hundreds of brands of wine, beer and spirits. LeClaire's Wine World is no small player, boasting more than 500 wines from Northwest wineries and over 6000 wines from all over the world in its 23,000 square feet of space in a location adjacent to and highly visible from I-5 just north of downtown. And because of its size, it will be one of the few facilities other than grocery stores that will be permitted to sell liquor, as LeClaire intends to do come June 1. The facility will be devoting the back end of the store to a selection of premium and local spirits. But Wine World's size is David vs. Total Wine's Goliath, with each of its stores carrying about 8,000 different types of wine, 3,000 types of spirits and 2,500 different beers. BevMo! Is slightly smaller but similar in its array of offerings. LeClaire had spent more than a decade doing wine-related events around the county and building relationships in the industry with his Wine Events & Promotions company, as well as creating the two largest wine clubs in the Northwest, Seattle Uncorked and Portland Uncorked. But LeClaire seems optimistic that his long-term relationships, as well as new-found ones generated by the type of events he's created, as well as the fact the giants have been suburban-based operations, will put him in a position to continue to have a successful niche. "People in the suburbs are very chain friendly," LeClaire said, "But there's a lot of pushback from the inner cities, where no one really wants a Walmart. Neither has really ever cracked the inner city." In fact, residents of Santa Barbara, CA, put up such a fuss against a plan by Total Wine to locate there that the company cancelled that plan. "We know that both have already signed three leases each with both being in South Center with other locations set for Silverdale, Tacoma, Bellevue and Spokane," LeClaire said. "The challenge these big guys represent is that they will have large campaigns and they'll grind down the competition on price," he added. "We're not going to be able to compete on price. We'll have to continue to do events that make it fun to come to our store," noting that their wine club now has about 3,000 members. "We get a lot of trade groups from around the country and the world," LeClaire said. "We had a collection of wineries from Argentina and have 30 winemakers from Italy next month." He said the visiting wine groups use Wine World as a venue to display their wares for restaurants and other customers. So how has business gone since the December, 2010, opening? "We had a huge surge at first but then things slowed a bit and we underperformed the first year vs. our plan," he said. "But then things started kicking in in October and people came in, and many told their friends about us." So innovative events that attract wine lovers will become increasingly important for LeClaire and his business as the competition begins to heat up. And what kind of innovative new events are in the works? "We have a dog food tasting event next month," he explained. "So while the owners are tasting wine, their dogs will be tasting various doggie offerings."
Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs.