A Super REACTION to SUPERSTORES

A new superstore opens in Pennsylvania, and shows why the state’s superstore system is a noteworthy success.

 


In mid-January, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) opened Store Number 0621 outside of Reading, its 18th superstore to date.


“And it is our best store, in terms of its general feel, its look, its ambiance,” said Al Connell, PLCB’s director of store operations.


The store, located in a shopping center among retail neighbors including Outback Steakhouse and Circuit City, is, at 11,600 square feet, one of the biggest of the state’s 645 stores. It will eventually carry about 5,000 items, all of the PLCB’s 3,500 regularly listed products as well as 1,500 superpremium wines and spirits.


“The store has three pear liqueurs that have an actual pear inside the bottle,” said John Mancuso, PLCB’s district manager for Berks and Schuykill Counties. “That’s a great conversation-starter.”


Like the PLCB’s other superstores, 0621 has wide aisles and space designed to accommodate large (50 to 100 case) displays. It is decorated with plants and artwork. “It’s wide and it’s deep and it’s high — and it’s really beautiful,” said Mancuso.


The premium wines and spirits are displayed in an area toward the back of the store that is set off with carpeting, soft lighting and wooden fixtures. The cabinets for especially high-priced items, such as rare cognacs, are designed to show off the products’ packaging and are decorated with fresh flowers.


A reference area, with tables and chairs, gives customers a chance to peruse beverage publications. It is also a good place for them to sit down with a store employee and discuss products or party plans. Alternatively, customers can consult a computerized kiosk that is loaded with product information and even food and drink recipes.


This new superstore, which replaced a 6,300-square-foot “regular” store, is already reporting sales increases of 20% to 25% in its first weeks of business.


Customer reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to Mancuso. “People are raving about this store,” he said.


Superstore Origins


The PLCB opened its first superstore, in the Cedar Crest Plaza shopping center in Allentown, back in 1990. The state’s superstores are all 10,000 to 11,000 square feet in size and carry specialty items in addition to the full load of regularly listed products. “The emphasis is on having more wines and on having attractive displays,” said John Jones III, PLCB chairman. “We want to encourage shoppers to linger and to ask questions. We really want to enhance the shopping experience.”


Pennsylvania’s newest superstore, located just outside of Reading, totals almost 12,000 square feet, and will eventually carry 5,000 products, including all of the 3,500 regularly listed items as well as 1,500 superpremium wines and spirits.


Generally, when the PLCB opens a superstore, it sees sales in the area increase by 15% to 20% within the first year. Most of the superstores ring up annual sales in the $7-$8 million range; a few have even higher sales.


Since 1990, the PLCB has opened 18 superstores. “And there are six more in the pipeline,” reported Chairman Jones. The plan is to have a total of 25 superstores up and running by the end of 2001.


The process of opening a superstore takes nine months to a year from start to finish. The first step is to choose an area. “Our store people look at trends and demographic information. Is an area becoming a shopping mecca? Is there a confluence of retailers? Has there been an influx of population? Is there a particular store or stores that start to go gang-busters, that are experiencing high traffic beyond the norm?” said Jones. The superstores are typically located in suburban areas, generally those with relatively high per-capita income levels.


But, at this point, said Jones, “we are getting into some interesting locations. We have the obvious ones and are now looking at non-obvious ones. We are really testing the concept [of superstores].”


The PLCB has favored replacing existing stores with superstores — and, where possible, consolidating by replacing several smaller stores with one large one. “That’s ideal,” said Connell. “We take a good store and just expand it. Those are really successful because they already have an established customer base.” Sometimes, the PLCB has been able to convert a standard store into a superstore by knocking out a wall or adding onto the existing building.



“The emphasis is on having more wines and on having attractive displays. We want to encourage shoppers to linger and to ask questions. We really want to enhance the shopping experience.”


John Jones III, chairman
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

“We have favored consolidation,” said Jones, “and we have taken heat for it,” mostly from town and general assembly officials. “But,” he added, “there is less overhead and that just makes good retailing sense.”


The PLCB, which leases all its store locations, has certain requirements. The space has to allow them to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example. The stores also have to be able to take tractor-trailer deliveries.


“And with the emphasis on wine, the space has to lend itself to enhanced displays,” said Jones.


The PLCB is concerned, too, with who the new store’s neighbors will be. “As much as possible, we try to locate near large and mega-supermarkets and in major shopping areas,” explained Connell. “Being near a supermarket in particular gives customers one-stop shopping.”


The PLCB deals from a position of strength when it comes to lease negotiations. State stores are considered good tenants. “We are a good draw, in and of ourselves,” pointed out Jones. “We are a destination location.” And potential landlords look on the PLCB’s five-year lease as a sign of stability.


The store’s spacious environment is meant to
accommodate a fair amount of large case stackings and displays, like this one.


“But we drive a very hard bargain,” Jones continued, with pride. “We usually pay bargain-basement prices and we force you to accept our lease, which has plenty of escape clauses for us. We don’t alter that.”


Still, he said, the benefits far outweigh the burdens. “People actively seek PLCB stores,” he said. “We are seen as one of the better tenants.”


Outfitting a Superstore


Once a location is chosen and its lease is approved, work begins on outfitting the store. The PLCB uses its own staff of craftsmen to build shelving and cabinets, install the lighting and even lay the tile floor and carpeting. That process takes four to six weeks.


“We found, using local carpenters, that either the work wasn’t up to our standards or it was too slow,” said Jones. “Having an in-house staff means we are up and running faster — and that means dollars and cents.” In the new store, as in all the superstores, the regular product section has a tile floor and metal shelving, while the specialty product section is carpeted and has wood fixtures.


“We are trying to change the look of all of our stores, giving them a more modern feel, with softer colors and nice artwork,” explained Connell. “This almost looks like a Pier One; it’s a far cry from a harsh liquor store environment.” The color scheme of the new store is blue and brown.


“Shoppers are struck, first of all by the size of these stores,” said Jones. “It is disarming to people who are used to state stores. And then they are struck by the abundance of wine and the elegance of their displays. It looks like someone’s wine cellar, very pleasing to the eye.” Likewise, the number of spirit products, such as single-malt Scotches, is also a surprise for shoppers. “A conventional store might have a handful of single malts; in these stores, the selection goes on and on,” said Jones.


The last part of the process, of course, is moving in. In the case of Store 0621, the old store remained open even as its inventory was being transferred. The process took four days and involved local and regional PLCB employees. “We moved 60,000 bottles, plus we got shiploads of 1,350 cases on one day and 1,000 cases the next, and we had to fill about 50 licensee orders at the same time,” said Mancuso. “It was a total team effort.”


As the jewels in the PLCB crown, superstores, along with the board’s 20 specialty stores, which are smaller but also carry up to 1,400 specialty items, get the best of the best. For instance, the superstores and the specialty stores are among the first to start using the PLCB’s new point-of-sale computer system. The new system has integrated credit-card abilities, which greatly speeds up the processing for that type of transaction.


The PLCB, a pioneer in the use of a device, called the MinorChecker, that verifies the authenticity of IDs by reading the magnetic stripe on the back of the customer’s driver’s license, also integrated that device into its new p-o-s computers. Superstores are generally equipped with four checkout lanes.


All the superstores and specialty stores are also equipped with reference areas and with computerized information kiosks, additions specifically meant to encourage shoppers to linger.


And superstores and specialty stores are where the PLCB holds its “Truckload Sales,” where products obtained at good prices in one-time buys are sold at prices that pass the savings on to customers.


The best-of-the-best philosophy extends to the employees chosen to work at superstores. “When you spend this much money on a store, you want to put your best foot forward,” said Jones. “You’re not going to see trainees in a superstore. As in any sales force, we have some people who do better, are more outgoing, pick up product knowledge faster. We pick people we know can handle the high customer traffic [of a superstore.]” Many of them have been through all of the training programs the PLCB offers to its store employees, including Master Level classes and trips to both Pennsylvania and California wineries.


This is all quite a change for a liquor control board whose store employees were, until 1987, forbidden by law to offer assistance to customers.


Some of 0621’s staff include (left to right) Charles Berger, Scott Schoffstall, Thomas Lechner, Stuart Snyder, Terry Hojnowski, Sharen Cholewa, Neil Koch, Kim Rothenberger, and Ruth Darling.


And it is a needed one for customers confronting the wide array of products offered to them by a superstore. “It is extra important in a new superstore, where there are going to be so many questions. You have to have a lot of knowledgeable people on the floor,” said Mancuso.


Like all PLCB stores, the number of employees at Store 0621 is based on its volume. Generally, superstores have staffs of 10 to 15 full- and part-time people. Like all superstores, one of 0621’s full-time employees, Ruth Darling, a wine and spirits specialist, dedicates all her time to the specialty product section.


“These stores need qualified wine people. That is always a goal of ours,” said Connell. “Customers often identify with certain people on staff. And our best people love to work in these stores.”


 The upscale look of store 0621, the eighteenth superstore among the state’s 645 stores, makes it among the best in terms of “ambiance,” according to Al Connell, the PLCB’s director of store operations.



Customer service is a big focus throughout the PLCB system of stores. And good service can come to a shock to customers who can remember when store employees were not allowed to assist customers or even when the state stores were counter-service. “People’s expectations are so low for state employees that, if we say hello to them, they are delighted,” joked Jones.


“People who come in are, first, blown away by the store,” said Mancuso, “and then they get great customer service. They are going to come back. Why wouldn’t they?”


Connell sees the PLCB’s progress in designing and building its stores continuing into the future. “This store is our best-looking store, I’m convinced,” he said. “And we’re getting better all the time.”


Cheryl Ursin is contributing editor to StateWays. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and other publications.

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