Gary Fisch on His Three Decades In Alcohol Retail

Editor’s Note: this story was cross-posted from our off-premise retailer trade magazine, Beverage Dynamics.

Gary Fisch opened his first alcohol retail store in 1987. Three decades later — with plenty of challenges and adjustments, including a name change to Gary’s Wine & Marketplace — his four-unit business has become a beloved staple of northern New Jersey. Revenues in 2017 are projected above $50 million.

We recently caught up with Fisch to chat about the key decisions that led to such success, along with his views on the present and future of alcohol trends.

Beverage Dynamics: What allowed for your thirty years of success?
Gary Fisch: 
Keeping an open mind to the ever-changing landscape in retail. At the end of every year I look back and say, ‘What are we going to do next, and how are we going to do it?’ I say, ‘What worked and what didn’t, and how are we going to position ourselves next year?’ I try to adjust with the landscape, and also try to get in front of it.

Gary Fisch

BD: Can you give an example of something you’re currently trying to get in front of?
GF: Canned wine. One year ago I was sitting on a panel in Napa when it came up. There were only a handful of canned wines, then but I said, ‘We need to look into this’. It’s more of a seasonal item, and where we’re located in New Jersey, the state is not necessarily conducive towards the canned-wine consumer. But still it was something I thought we needed to focus on.

So I contacted our vendors and had them drop off samples. My staff and I tasted them. The difference was that for this tasting I invited not only my wine team, but also the floor staff. The reason being that A) My wine team has preconceived notions about everything, and B) My wine team is not the sort of consumer who’s going to buy canned wine.

We had an eclectic group of tasters. We tasted about 20 cans and picked the top six-to-eight. Now each of my stores has them out in a location where we’re experimenting. Do they sell better cold? Off the rack? At different spots in the store? We’re finding out.

BD: What was a turning point in your business’ growth?
GF: Bordeaux is a good example. The 1988, ’89 and ’90 Bordeaux vintages were great. In New Jersey at that point there were not many retailers playing in the arena of Bordeaux. So we could buy everything our distributors had, and at great prices. That introduced us to shoppers as a fine-wine store.

I was just considering the 2016 Bordeaux campaign. I was looking on Wine Searcher to see how our prices matched up with competitors. We’re one of the few big players in there. There’s nobody else in New Jersey, and very few in the country, and our prices are comparable with theirs. Fast forward 22, 23 years and we’re still doing something that we’ve always done, which is focus on the collectibles and the high-ends. We do more than just open the store on Monday morning and say, ‘Let’s do business’. We’re researching and understanding the market.

BD: What’s the story with your brand’s name change?
GF: Around 1999, when we were still known as Shoppers Discount Liquor Wine Warehouse, we were getting into the gourmet food business. And you can’t call yourself that name if you’re selling high-end cheeses. The branding doesn’t match.

So we brought in a PR firm and they hired us a facilitator. One Saturday morning we brought in 20 customers. We set up a white board. We asked them, ‘What’s the name of the store?’ We got 20 different answers, all of them close but none of them accurate. The facilitator said, ‘When you go here, what do you tell people?’ Resoundingly, they all said, ‘We’re going to have Gary pick out a wine for us’. So we put my name on the white board.

Now if I had been named Jacque or Pierre, that would have resonated, haha. But I’m not smart enough to change my name, so we went with Gary’s.

Gary Fisch opened his second location in 1993.

BD: What are some current wine trends you see?
GF: Seasonally and year round, rosé is absolutely smoking. Provenance, predominantly, but we’re also seeing a lot more from Spain and California. Europeans, the French especially, have been drinking rosé year round forever. That trend has finally caught on in the U.S., I think.

I’m also seeing a lot of ‘The seeking of other’. By which I mean experimentation. Right now that includes lighter white wines, plus Greek and Portuguese wines. People are exploring the world. Which is good news for us, as it gives us opportunity to introduce new things to our guests. That’s one thing that separates us from other retailers: Our passion extends onto the bottles that we carry.

BD: What do you do to introduce people to new wines?
GF: Lots. For our recent Chilean program we did a Chilean wine of the month, and we did a Chilean wine dinner every Saturday in May. We went as over the top as you can as you can with a program.

We’ve been advertising rosé through email, and we keep rosé on the floor. We’re not just retailing the product, but working on marketing it and introducing it to the consumer as well.

The aisles inside one of Gary Fisch’s stores in 1995.

BD: What about trends in spirits and beer?
GF: The whole concept of cool cocktails is really resonating. The mixologist/bartender is experimenting, playing around, and the guests who come into those bars have the opportunity to try something really interesting. And that’s starting to filter much more to us. People are buying more interesting bitters, gins and, of course, bourbons. We’re also seeing a lot more sales for tequila.

With beer, there’s so many more small producers now. Which keeps the category interesting, but is also challenging, because freshness is so important to the quality of beer that you don’t want old beers sitting around the shelves.

Our beer managers taste everything. That way we make sure we’re not bringing something in just because it’s craft, but because it’s also good. And we’re monitoring the shelf sets to make sure we’re constantly changing around the product to keep the quality there. When you’re paying $9-to-$16 for a 4- or 6-pack, you want that beer tasting correctly.

I’ll walk into other stores and see seasonal beers that are two seasons behind. That’s something you really have to look for as a consumer. That tells you a lot about that retailer.

If a beer is getting to the point that we’re starting to get worried about its age, we’ll put it on sale or break it up into loose singles for mix packs. We’ll market in a unique way to make sure beers are not just sitting around.

The current interior of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in Wayne, New Jersey.

BD: Can you tell us about your company’s sizable e-commerce presence?
GF: We will ship to any state where it’s legal. Unlike many stores, our online inventory is live inventory. If it’s showing up on the website then we have it in stock. That’s very important.

We treat our website like a business. We’re very serious about it. We won’t ship products in extreme weather conditions, whether in the extreme heat of the summer or the cold of winter. Under those conditions, we’ll wait until further notice to ship.

It’s become a very good business. It’s become a fifth store, for sure.

BD: What’s next for Gary’s Wine & Marketplace?
GF: I think we’ll continue to embrace technology more. Especially as a means to speak directly with guests via emails or texts. We’ll continue to work on the shopping experience. If something is not selling, we’ll swap it out for what consumers want. And we’ll continue to grow. We’re always looking at new locations.

Kyle Swartz is managing editor of StateWays magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz

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