Massachusetts Beverage Business


Boutique Merchandising

Article By: Kim Foley MacKinnon

Passion and customer service are the by-words of the proprietors of three different Massachusetts boutique wine stores when asked what the single most important part of their businesses is.

These words are what the owners claim is the reason customers turn to them, in their smaller spaces, with less big name brands and less stock, instead of visiting large chain stores with endless selections and perhaps less than perfect service.

BRIX 1284 Washington Street, Boston, MA O2118, 617.542.2749, The owners of Brix, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally, have created a wine shop in the Boston's South End which evokes more of a bar atmosphere than a store. And a very hip bar at that. Dark colors, Italian lighting, a granite tasting table, and an open floor plan make it seem as though the room was made for a trendy cocktail party, except for the floor-to-ceiling racks of wine on three sides. The back wall, where the register is found, holds a selection of liquors on shelves that glow from lights below. And just like at your favorite bar, if you've been in the store before, it's very likely Wroblewski or Mally will know your name.

a BUSINESS BORN with CUSTOMER SERVICE in MIND Before opening Brix, Wroblewski and Mally had become fast friends years ago after meeting at a South End wine shop that Wroblewski worked at. One day, while waiting for a buyer in a different wine shop, Wroblewski saw a customer wandering around, obviously in need of some advice. There was nary a clerk in sight. Taking pity on this person, Wroblewski offered to help. She happened to be on the phone with Mally at the time, who, while listening to Wroblewski assist the hapless customer, had a Eureka! moment. She shouted to Wroblewski, "I've got it! I've got it! How would you like to own a wine shop?"

They went into the project with that focus on customer service held as paramount. Wroblewski says, "We treat clients as if they were in a five-star restaurant."

In addition, they knew what they didn't want. Wroblewski says, "All stores look alike. Case stackings everywhere. They're difficult to navigate." Mally adds to that, saying, "What is lacking is a design element, ambiance that is exceptional." Mally designed certain items in the store, such as the wrought-iron door made to look like stacked wine bottles in a rack. Brix, with its open space, is easy to navigate, another important element of customer service often neglected or overlooked, says Wroblewski.

the NUMBERS GAME At any given time, Brix offers about 85O to 1OOO different types of wine (as well as some liquors). Bottle prices average about $15, even though the store is located in a higher end location of the city, which is currently heading toward being even higher end. Despite the fact that most of their clients are well off, Wroblewski and Mally wanted to keep prices reasonable because they researched what the neighborhood wanted. "They drink wine every day," says Wroblewski, who could draw on her years of experience in other retail wine stores in the area. "It's a part of their lives. Though they have money, they don't always want to spend a lot on everyday wines." Mally says, "Carri calls them 'Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday' wines," which is apt description and perfect for a client who may come in three or four times a week on their way home from work.

GET ORGANIZED Another part of the business Wroblewski stresses is organization. "If you are organized, it's easy to accommodate customers," she says. "Each customer (if they choose) is included in a database Brix keeps. It tracks their buying history." This highly unusual practice, in the wine retail business anyway, is a useful tool for both the store and the customer. Say you had a fabulous wine six months ago but can't remember the name of the bottle. Simply ask Wroblewski or Mally and they can look it up instantly.

SPECIAL TOUCHES Other ways that the pair breaks away from standard wine shop protocol include their policy of using crystal wine glasses instead of plastic cups for their Friday night weekly wine tastings. Besides being better for the wine, allowing a true taste possible, it is simply more elegant and inviting. The store will also allow customers to special order three bottles of wine, rather than the usual six bottles or a case. While this increases cost a bit, it is an added service that clients seem to like. E-mail updates to customers let them in on special deals and events. A new program the pair has started is called "Industry Night", when a local chef prepares a signature item and they match wines to it. Recently a pastry chef brought in desserts and customers could try dessert wines with them.

Both Wroblewski and Mally are thrilled with the store so far, which will be open a year this December. Mally says, "If you love what you do, it all comes together. You have to be passionate."

SOLERA 12 Corinth Street, Roslindale Village, MA O2131, 617.469.4OO5 By day, a Spanish-language interpreter for the Boston courts, by night, a wine store proprietor, Maria Valencia has a full plate, but she wouldn't have it any other way. Having always wanted to be in business for herself, Valencia saw an opportunity she just couldn't pass up when she moved to this Boston neighborhood of 35,OOO people in 1993.

"When I moved to Roslindale, I realized there was nothing here," says Valencia. "No restaurants. No wine stores. No boutiques." But, she knew the tide was changing as the neighborhood started to undergo radical changes and revitalization. "I felt I wanted to contribute to the renaissance." That was almost four years ago.

Her store, at about 7OO square feet, is rectangular, which Valencia likes because she says it reminds her of a wine cellar. She offers about 42O types of wine and a small selection of beer. Average prices hover between $1O to $15 for a bottle of wine. Valencia says about 6O types of wines she sells are more than $15.

"My philosophy is that small is better," says Valencia. "Small and selective and a good value. I try to have things not found everywhere. I taste everything I buy." This policy allows her to be really hands-on with recommendations for food and wine pairings as well as be prepared to find wines in every price range. "We try to find wine within their budget," she says of her customers.

Valencia also subscribes to the philosophy that individual attention is a key strategy for retaining clients, as well as a providing a pleasing ambiance in the store. "Customer service is very important," says Valencia. "In a big store, I used to get overwhelmed. The customer doesn't get lost here. They are not intimidated." Most of her clientele are repeat customers from the neighborhood.

The store is decorated with oriental rugs and artwork. Racks of wines line the store and a few specialty items, such as wine glasses and bottle wraps, are tucked here and there. A wine barrel sits next to the register area and displays the week's wine special, or on Saturday afternoons at 4pm, serves as a table for wine tastings. The feeling is very warm and welcoming.

"This is a shrine to wine," says Valencia. "I love wine and food."

ESPRIT du VIN 25 Central Avenue, Milton, MA O2186, 617.296.WINE, A "passionate interest" in food and wine led Keith Mills and his wife, Linda, to open their wine shop in Milton almost three years ago. Trained as a chef, and a former risk manager, Mills says he finally has his dream job. "It's a great lifestyle," he says but adds that owning a small store like his is a lot of work. One thing stands out as being most important. "It has to be a passion," says Mills, mentioning that particular word that seems to come up a lot in the boutique wine shop world.

In an effort to build upon his knowledge, Mills took a wine certification class at Boston University at the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center. Masters of Wine Sandy Block and William Nesto were the instructors, for which Mills is very thankful.

"For me, although I was a wine enthusiast, it filled in all the holes I needed to feel competent in talking about and selling wine," says Mills. "It solidified my base." In a happy coincidence, Nesto actually lives near Esprit du Vin, allowing Mills to take advantage of his vast knowledge on occasion.

"Bill Nesto comes into the shop from time and time," says Mills, as does Block. "Having two of the biggest wine gurus in the world come in and the opportunity to talk to them is great. We'll taste wine." Mills gets their opinions and talks of the latest industry news. Learning is always ongoing. Mills says, "There's always new wines, new techniques - it's a very dynamic market."

Mills' store offers more than just wine. In a deli case, there are more than 7O kinds of cheeses available. He also offers various spreads, artichoke hearts and the like. Behind the counter, fresh bread from Iggy's and Jessica's, delivered each day, is displayed.

"We provide service and value," says Mills, who knows most of his customers by first name. "I know what every customer likes to drink." Mills say he wants customers to feel comfortable with the store and the whole experience. "Let's make it easy," he says. "We can talk about style and come to a consensus." He asks his customers what they are having for dinner to pair up a proper wine. About 8O percent of his customers are from Milton and most are repeat clients.

Mills also believes in making the store affordable. "We have certain items that people can afford to buy." There are about 4OO to 5OO labels available, many in the $1O to $15 price point. He also offers some liquors.

Wine tastings with samplings of cheese are offered on Fridays from 5:3O to 8:3Opm. In addition, Mills does private wine tastings and corporate wine tastings, either in the store or elsewhere when clients ask.

As for his philosophy on store design? "No case stacking!"

PASSION and FOCUS on SERVICE One of the greatly appealing things about these stores is the hometown, friendly feel to them. All the owners are extremely hands-on, with some occasional hired help, but mostly, they all work the stores themselves. As a result, the difference in customer service is striking. At Solera one night, Valencia took a phone call in the middle of being interviewed for this story. She agreed to hand deliver a bottle of champagne to a woman who just moved here. The person on the phone was the woman's father calling from New York, who wanted his daughter to have a special welcome gift.

At Esprit du Vin, Mills interrupted an interview to help a young girl who walked into the shop. He asked if the girl's mother wanted the usual, which was a loaf of fresh bread for dinner. At Brix, one or another of the proprietors almost always opens the door for their clients. Each store offers free wine tastings, discounts for clients and other special events.

All of the owners make time for friendly, personal conversations. This is a rare trait in today's high-speed world, when flagging down a clerk to help you is almost an art form. So far, slowing down a bit, looking people in the eye, and removing all cases off the floor (!), seems to be a working formula for these small business owners.


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