Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wine and Spirit sales resisting recession

PRINCETON: Liquor sales resisting recession
Wednesday, December 31, 2008 4:03 PM EST
By Lauren Otis, Staff Writer

As Princeton-area residents prepared to toast the New Year with hopes for a better 2009, one group of retailers had reason to raise a thankful toast to 2008 — wine and spirits merchants.

Although many customers seemed to scale back by seeking out less expensive bottles, this holiday season and the year in general has been a good one, said area wine, beer and liquor retailers.

”We are down less than 5 percent” in 2008 sales compared to 2007, said Mark Bovenizer, proprietor of Community Liquors on Witherspoon Street. “I’m pretty happy with that. People are celebrating, just not in luxurious style, not with Dom Perignon, but with an American sparkler instead, at a quarter of the price.”

At Community Liquors, “we were doing fine up until September,” he said. After the crash of the financial markets at that point, “a lot of the larger parties, larger purchasers, became smaller purchasers,” he said.

One interesting anomaly was in sales of single malt Scotch whiskeys, Mr. Bovenizer said.

”We sold quite a lot of high-end Scotch,” he said. “I had to reorder before Christmas. It was surprising how much we sold,” particularly bottles retailing for $100 or more.

Apparently the Princeton thirst for single malt whiskey was a large one.

”We’ve never sold so many single malts for Christmas,” said Laurent Chapuis, owner of the Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop on Hulfish Street. “It is an expensive gift that people can drink over time.

”It is not a one shot deal like a bottle of wine,” Mr. Chapuis said in speculating on one possible reason for the jump in single malt sales.

”It was a very, very good year overall,” Mr. Chapuis said.

Business from regular customers was excellent, and corporate customer business was “in the middle,” neither great nor poor, Mr. Chapuis said.

He noted seasonal champagne sales were “exceptional” with customers who might balk at purchasing a bottle of wine for $40 not having any problem shelling out the same amount for a celebratory bottle of champagne.

”The only drop we’ve seen is in the high-end wines,” Mr. Chapuis said. “We specialize in bottles from $7 to $20. We sold more than ever in that category.”

”I was very pleased with the way the year turned out,” for sales in Princeton, said Mark Censits, president and CEO of CoolVines.

Mr. Censits opened his Princeton CoolVines store, located on the corner of Nassau and Harrison Streets, in August. He already operates a CoolVines store in Westfield.

CoolVines offers a $13 blanc de blancs sparkling wine from France, which is not from the Champagne region, but is a very nice wine for the price, Mr. Censits said.

”We have sold a ton,” he said. “I think people have been really elated to say, ‘wow, you can find a great product for this price.’”

Customers searching for value in their wine and spirits purchases benefit from CoolVines’ emphasis on wine characteristics and not labels, Mr. Censits said.

”That works well for us,” he said. “That is our whole point of difference. We can find great stuff searching beyond the brand names.”

Unlike other merchants, as a wine seller, he did not have to mark down his products to sell them although he spent a lot of time and effort on other types of promotions, Mr. Censits said.
At the Westfield store, “we had just as much bottle sales, but we had an 8 percent decline in revenues,” Mr. Censits said.

At both his locations, “people were trading down from a $50 wine to a $30 wine and $20 wine to $8,” he said. “What just gets clipped off is the very high end of it” for bottles costing several hundred dollars.

”People have been buying the same amount, maybe spending a little less. Overall, it’s been a pretty strong year for us,” said Chris Sletvold, store manager at the Joe Canal’s Discount Liquor Outlet on Route 1 in Lawrence. “Instead of buying one $50 bottle, they are buying two $25 bottles.”

The poor economy “hasn’t affected beer sales; high-end liquor, yes; high-end wine, yes,” Mr. Bovenizer said.

He said sales in December are likely to be down about 5 percent with sales volume affected by not just the economy, but the lack of convenient parking close to his store now that the Tulane Street surface parking lot has been closed.

Mr. Chapuis noted for the holiday season, “we got hurt by the late Thanksgiving and one less Saturday” in December this year.

One Saturday’s sales at this time of year can account for 5 to 6 percent of monthly sales, he said.

Mr. Chapuis said wine merchants shouldn’t lose sleep over outside economic forces beyond their control.

”There is nothing we can do anyhow,” he said. “We can only improve the quality and the selection. I can do only what I can control.”

Mr. Bovenizer said he already is anticipating continuing economic doldrums in 2009, having let go of one full-time employee and cut back on part-time staffing for the new year.

”If there is anything, I am holding my breath a bit as far as January is concerned,” said Mr. Censits.

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