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Total Wine’s quest for dominance

Its size, lobbying prowess, marketing savvy and customer service make it formidable

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Customers make their selection in the Spanish wines’ aisle at the Total Wine & More superstore in Towson. (Maximilian Franz)

It’s near the end of the business day on a Friday, and Towson’s Total Wine & More already is bustling with activity.

The parking lot is full. Cars queue at the store’s entrance on Loch Raven Boulevard. A steady stream of customers flow in, many grabbing carts outside as they prepare to browse the seemingly endless aisles of alcohol within.

A family of four summons a nearby employee to ask about their favorite wine, and he assures them there’s plenty in the back. A manager on a headset describes a customer in search of a particular beer, and an employee goes to seek him out among the aisles of IPAs.

From within the warehouse store abuzz with customers, it seems difficult to imagine that the company began in 1991 with a small 2,500-square-foot wine store on the northern tip of Delaware.

Today, the Bethesda-based company started by brothers David and Robert Trone has 162 stores in 20 states. Each store (they average between 20,000 and 30,000 square feet) boasts about 8,000 different wines, 3,000 spirits and 2,500 beers.

While the company declines to disclose its revenue, reports published in American City Business Journals estimate it to be around $2 billion.

How Total Wine grew into such a colossus is a story of boundaries pushed, regulations tested and an industry ripe for transformation and consolidation. Total Wine’s large size wins it pricing advantages, and it targets locations for stores that often are served largely by smaller, mom-and-pop stores. Its savvy marketing campaigns successfully woo customers, and its vigorous lobbying efforts have overturned restrictive liquor laws in a number of states.

Smaller liquor stores close to Total Wine’s Maryland locations say they’ve felt the heat from their far larger competitor.

The size of the company allows it to buy in bulk from distributors, spelling trouble for smaller stores with less buying power.

“They’ve basically leveraged their size. Their main advantage is that they’re the Sports Authority, the warehouse size of the industry,” said a manager at Island Liquors near Total Wine’s Laurel location. He spoke on condition he not be named.

Ranjan Khanna, who runs Towson Place Liquors, near Total Wine’s Towson store, said the same. His store, far smaller, and comparatively lacking in grocery carts and headset-clad managers, can’t compete with Total Wine’s prices, he said. He rarely sees large purchases and is depending on loyal locals to stay afloat.

“Mainly we depend on our neighborhood … the people who say, ‘We are going to support you,’” Khanna said.

He’s noticed a decline in his store’s sales since Total Wine came on the scene.

“I have put all my life savings in this business, so we are struggling,” he said.

But the company denies that it’s to blame for closing down small neighborhood liquor stores.

“We believe it’s untrue,” said Edward Cooper, a spokesman for Total Wine. “We have certainly not seen any evidence to substantiate this claim, and our internal research suggests the opposite – that there is no such effect,” he said.

Its business model

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A couple shopping in a liquor aisle at the Total Wine & More superstore on Loch Raven Boulevard in Towson. (Maximilian Franz)

The outcry from smaller competitors offers a small window into why Total Wine’s business has seen such success.

The company trains employees for 100 hours, touting the importance of excellent customer service and education. It sends out weekly ads from each of its stores, all of which can be found online. Thanks to its size and scope, it earns large volume discounts from distributors, lowering prices for consumers. It sends out coupons to reward members of its loyalty program.

Cooper attributes the company’s success to its employees and the benefits they’re offered.

“Total Wine & More is unlike most package stores in that the vast majority of our team members are full time, earn competitive wages and benefits, and have an opportunity to pursue a rewarding career in our business,” he said. “Our team members provide customers with what they deserve: outstanding customer service.”

Patrice Dyson, a recent customer at Total Wine in Towson, agreed.

“They have everything I need in one place,” Dyson said, praising the company’s low prices and strong customer service as elevating them above their competitors.

The model has drawn comparisons to businesses like Walmart, but University of Maryland business professor Jie Zhang said she sees a better analogy.

“I kind of see it as the Barnes & Noble of the industry,” she said. “They have the competitive prices part — that is like Walmart. They have the large assortment like Home Depot, but they also emphasize the customer education part — that is like Barnes & Noble, like how they bring in speakers and authors … to really educate consumers.”

It made the difference for one customer at the chain’s Towson store. Lisa Kookogey, of Timonium, said a Total Wine employee introduced her to her favorite vodka brand, which she said isn’t carried by other local stores.

“I just like the fact that they have the kinds of liquor that I want, because I live by Ridgely and the Ridgely Liquors right there does not carry the kind of vodka I like,” she said. “(Before I went to Total Wine) I had been drinking Ketel One… and this lady was like, she’s the expert there, and she said, ‘If you like Ketel One, try this.’”

The company’s Total Discovery loyalty program, which sends out coupons by mail, also drew Kookogey to the store.

The company has had to fight for the legality of such programs in states like Massachusetts. It’s one of many regulatory and political battles it has waged across the country.

Politics and lobbying

David Trone

David Trone (Wikimedia)

The Trones are no strangers to politics. David Trone ran for the Democratic congressional nomination in Maryland’s 8th District in 2016, but fell short — after he’d spent over $12 million of his own money on his campaign.

And this week he declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Maryland’s 6th District.

While Trone himself hasn’t had much political luck, his company has a track record for just the opposite when it comes to lobbying.

Total Wine has found success in lobbying to reshape liquor laws in Minnesota, Delaware and Georgia.

It successfully pushed to reverse a Texas law that required food sales to outpace alcohol sales at licensed establishments and to change a law in one Texas county that prohibited the sale of packaged hard liquor.

In the Carolinas, the company was behind successful efforts to allow sales of beer exceeding 6 percent alcohol content. It is now advocating to permit selling alcohol below cost and to offer alcohol retailer coupons in Massachusetts.

Efforts in Maryland

In Maryland, a three-tiered system governs alcohol distribution. Alcohol manufacturers sell their products to wholesalers, who then sell them to liquor stores and bars.

The system was started in 1933, after Prohibition, to discourage excessive consumption by adding a middleman in the brewery-bar relationship, which policymakers anticipated would raise prices and therefore encourage temperance.

Each county has different regulations on sale, distribution and store operation. Some ban Sunday sales and set minimum prices and maximum store size rules.

The regulations are designed in part to protect smaller stores from the threat of big-box retailers.

In 2009, Total Wine fought against and ultimately overturned liquor pricing restrictions in Maryland, which allows the company – and all retailers — to reward high-volume customers with discounts.

In Montgomery County, the latest Maryland battleground for the company, long-standing strict regulations have recently been loosened somewhat.

Up until July 1, when new measure became law, the government owned all 26 liquor stores in the county. No other stores could sell spirits — only beer and wine. Under the new law, though, nearly 350 stores could be eligible to sell liquor as well, according to the legislation’s fiscal note.

Total Wine co-owners, brothers Robert and David Trone, each has a liquor license in Maryland, one for the Towson store, which opened in 1995, and the other for the Laurel location, which opened in 1997, Cooper said. Maryland law prohibits either of them from holding another. The pair are eyeing Total Wine’s home county for a third store, but to do so would require a change in the state’s licensing law.

A bill, dubbed the “Total Wine Bill,” would have permitted retailers to hold more than one liquor license in the county, thereby opening the door for the Trones’ Montgomery County location.

The bill faltered in the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year, in part because of protests from the State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents smaller retailers. In April, Del. Charles Barkley, the chair of the House alcohol subcommittee, told the Bethesda Beat that he is considering reintroducing the measure.

The company’s ownership also has found itself in the hot seat for some political activities.

Last year, Retail Services & Systems, Inc., headed by David Trone, was cited by the Office of the State Prosecutor for its excessive contributions to the Democratic campaigns like that of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and his running mate, former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, and Comptroller Peter Franchot. The company settled and paid $60,000 — the maximum fine possible —  and made a $90,000 contribution to a state public campaign financing fund. Retail Services said at the time that it had done nothing wrong and was settling to avoid costly litigation.

A state prosecutor said there was no evidence that the excessive contributions were made with knowledge that they were unlawful.

What’s next for Total Wine?

Cooper said that there are no current plans for new stores in Maryland. Instead, California and Texas have been recent hotspots for the company’s growth.

“We select locations that are underserved or poorly served by existing retail businesses,” he said.

Ravi Srinivasan, a professor at Loyola University’s Sellinger School of Business, said the true test for Total Wine will come when online alcohol sales are more widely allowed.

Perhaps then, their hundreds of warehouse stores could become obsolete, he said.

The decline in brick-and-mortar sales since the rise of online purchasing giant Amazon has been documented, and Total Wine may face the same fate if regulations loosen and it doesn’t shift its focus.

Currently, three states prohibit the shipping of alcoholic beverages, five allow the shipment of all types of alcoholic beverages and the remaining states permit some combination of beer and wine shipments.

But Total Wine has positioned itself for digital competition. The company currently offers online wine sales, and ships to the states that allow it, including Maryland, where customers can purchase wine online from retailers with the proper permit.

(This story has been revised to correct an earlier version that inaccurately described the amount of fines paid Retail Services & Systems, Inc. in regard to alleged campaign finance violations.)

 

 

 


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