Only seconds into a visit to the newly opened Total Wine & More, in a former Office Max site on south Hulen Street, it becomes obvious that North Texas liquor sales are no longer defined by warehouse-like stores in the industrial parts of town.
From the moment customers enter the 30,000-square-foot location in the Hulen Fashion Center, they're swept into aisle after aisle of wines, more than 8,000 in all, displayed crisply and separated by country and variety.
Some 3,000 types of spirits are set in the back of the store and 2,500 beers are to the far left, next to a cigar humidor.
"Our stores are bright and beautiful," said David Trone, Total Wine's founder and president. "The stores will knock your socks off. The best selection, that's just good business. We are the price leader in every market. You've got to have the best prices all the time."
Total Wine, which opened last week, is one of several superstores descending on Tarrant County and set on shaking up the local packaged liquor scene. Houston-based Spec's Wine and Spirits has leased space in Fort Worth and Dallas-based Goody Goody has entered the market, with two stores in Fort Worth and one in Colleyville.
The new brand of liquor stores are bigger, often filling shopping center spaces vacated by big-box retailers, and merchandise is being presented in more unique and thoughtful ways, such as old-world displays at Goody Goody replete with a wine cellar.
The chains say they're stressing customer service and having the lowest prices as well. At Total Wine & More, bottles of wine range from $1.97 to $2,299 for a 2004 Petrus Pomerol from Bordeaux.
"What we pride ourselves on is having what the customer wants," said Bill Tice, Total Wine's district manager over the Fort Worth store. "If a customer doesn't see it in the store, just ask."
Steve Gray, leasing director with the Weitzman Group brokerage, said the availability of large retail spaces with low rents has made it easier for the chains to move in.
"The retailers are seeing opportunity," Gray said. "It's interesting because these guys are going after a higher-end consumer. The stores are different than liquor stores of the past. It's a welcome addition for landlords and consumers."
And despite the sluggish economy, alcohol sales have continued to grow.
Liquor sales by U.S. manufacturers increased 4 percent in 2011, to $19.9 billion, fueled by an increase in exports, an improved U.S. economy and product innovation, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And at the retail level, U.S. wine sales in 2011 climbed to a record of 347 million cases, up 5.3 percent from 2010, the Wine Institute reported.
The newcomers are uprooting a local liquor market that has been consolidating.
Last year, Centennial Fine Wine & Spirits bought the Majestic Liquor chain in Fort Worth out of bankruptcy, which at that time boosted the number of stores it owned to 67. Greg Wonsmos, Centennial's president, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.
Spec's Wine and Spirits plans three stores in the market, according to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission filings. The company has leased a 55,800-square-foot former Tom Thumb location in the Cityview Centre shopping center at 4720 Bryant Irvin Road, where it will reportedly have a store and some wholesale business. It has also leased the former Marvin Electronics location nearby on Hulen Street. No opening dates have been announced and company executives did not return phone calls seeking comment on their plans.
Goody Goody has already expanded into Tarrant County with three stores, at I-20 and Hulen and 6393 Camp Bowie Blvd., and 4701 Colleyville Blvd., and is building a 39,000-square-foot warehouse off SE Loop 820 near Lake Arlington to handle its wholesale business to local restaurants, bars, hotels and clubs. Earlier this year, Goody Goody bought Centennial's wholesale operations, said Joe Jansen, Goody Goody's president.
Three years ago, Goody Goody bought 3 acres at the southeast corner of Cooks Lane and Interstate 30 in east Fort Worth for a location. But those plans changed as the retailers opted to expand first in other areas, Jansen said.
Last year, when Colleyville voters agreed to allow package liquor sales, Jansen said it was important to get a store opened there, which he located in a strip center on Texas 26. He also built a warehouse in Collin County to handle demand from a growing Dallas market. Now, Jansen said he has two stores under construction in Houston and plans a third to go head-to-head with Spec's on its home turf.
"Events have dictated what we've done," Jansen said. "If [Spec's] is going to come to Dallas, I'm going to Houston."
He may also have to reconsider the Cooks Lane location. Spec's plans to move into a former Office Depot off Eastchase Parkway and I-30, which relocated to a different spot in the shopping center.
There's an app for that
Trone said the competition and strong demographics attracted Maryland-based Total Wine to Texas. In addition to Fort Worth, it opened a store near Northpark Center off Central Expressway in Dallas in May, also in a former Office Max. The two stores are among 11 being opened nationwide this year. The chain was founded in 1991 and operates 86 stores in 14 states.
The company also has stores in California and Trone said he sees that state and Texas becoming the chain's No. 1 and No. 2 markets, respectively.
"Clearly, Texans enjoy a drink once in a while," Trone said. "We've got a couple of deals in San Antonio also. Those won't open up there until next year."
Total Wine has built its niche, though, on having well-trained store associates and educating the consumer on products, Trone said. The store has a classroom, with a bar setting, which it opens for groups to use and where it hosts events.
"The people are our real key. We do a tremendous amount of training," Trone said. "We think that makes a big difference."
Employees have smartphones with an app to help recommend a wine if a customer doesn't know what they want, and two iPads are in the store for customers to research wine recommendations. Customers can e-mail themselves information from the iPad, including a picture of the bottle they've selected.
Room for more
Some smaller local players are also expanding. The Hakemy family is opening Liquor Depot in a former Sav-A-lot store at 2400 Pioneer Parkway in Pantego.
The company has a store in Roanoke, and seven others throughout the area. It also operates eight convenience store and gas station operations, which sell alcohol. The 18,000-square-foot Pantego store will also handle its wholesale business in Tarrant County.
Yousof Hakemy, a partner in the family-run business, said the Pantego site is the first location in the Arlington area where it could sell liquor. Arlington only permits package sales of beer and wine, but Pantego voters in May approved the sale of liquor for off premise consumption. The store is not far from Centennial-owned stores on Pioneer Parkway in Dalworthington Gardens and Arlington.
"Low price, we think we'll do better than the big guys," Hakemy said.
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