I've been hearing a lot of -- well, a lot of crap from anti-privatization interests (which pretty much means PLCB bureaucrats, UFCW members, Democrat legislators, a couple social conservative Republican legislators, and...no, actually, that's about it) about how the wholesaling's going to be terrible under privatization (and if HB11 stays the way it is, it may well be, but that can -- and better! -- change before it's voted on), and how big stores are going to crush mom and pops and leave us with no choice (like we have a lot now).
This ignores, of course, what actually happens in states where private liquor sales are the norm -- like New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts -- and all kinds of stores thrive and the selection's just fine; real good, in fact, at many stores. Not all, but you don't have a great selection of groceries at every store that sells groceries, right? There's selection, there's specialization, there's price, and there's convenience to be considered.
Anyway, I was thinking about this when I saw this interview with Michael Binstein in Shanken News Daily [full disclosure: my major client, Malt Advocate, is owned by M.Shanken Communications...for what that's worth], the owner of the big Binny's chain of booze stores in Illinois. They have 25 stores, and the selection is tremendous; love going there when I'm in Chicagoland.
I saw some pertinent stuff that I wanted to share. Please notice: Binstein is bullish about expanding, not keeping a cap on his number of stores. He sees competition, and meets it (without the help of the state police). And he sees opportunity for wholesalers who want to work hard, and for small retailers. This is a smart guy, who knows the market, and is successful in it. Probably ought to give what he's saying some consideration.
This is not the whole interview.
SND: In the last four years, you’ve expanded from 19 stores to 25 stores, mostly through acquisition during a very difficult economy. Has your investment paid off? Binstein: The honest answer is that the investment is paying off. Time is the ultimate test, and one needs a certain amount of humility. But there’s not a single acquisition, store opening or expansion of our model that I would take back.
SND: How big a player are you in the greater Chicago market? Binstein: I’m told we’re the largest independent in the Midwest, and certainly the largest independent in Illinois.
SND: Who do you consider to be your biggest competitor in your market? Binstein: This is going to sound like a cliché, but I think anyone and everyone who holds a liquor license is competition, and there are tens of thousands of people who do. Convenience should not be underestimated. We may have the selection, we may have the best price, but with gasoline nearing $5 a gallon, people have to make tough decisions. Every player at every trade channel has a contribution to make. So there’s not a competitor that I minimize.
SND: Do you have any plans to expand to other states? Binstein: We’re keeping an open mind. We certainly have looked, and there are opportunities. But there are so many places within our market, so many communities and areas where we still think we could open a store. I think we’d like to finish Illinois before moving on.
SND: How are your relations currently with major suppliers?
Binstein: They can get very ideological—if not theological—about pricing. I think a bottle of wine, or liquor or beer, is like all commodities. It’s no different from selling soybeans, corn or wheat. It has a price, and it’s based on supply and demand, and it ebbs and flows in every market. Just as the corn, soybean or wheat broker or farmer can’t get too ideological or theological about what a bushel should cost, the same goes for our business. One of the oxymorons in our business is something called price integrity, when suppliers believe something should cost $20 or $30 and they don’t really care what the customer thinks it should cost. I think that’s a very myopic, unprogressive way of looking at business. This is not a very popular thing to say.
SND: How about wholesalers?
Binstein: There are bad retailers and there are bad wholesalers. There are lazy retailers and there are lazy wholesalers. I’ll leave it at that, but I will say that I think wholesalers have an opportunity, a very unique opportunity, to make themselves even more indispensable in this era of consolidation, because suppliers are looking for foster parents. Suppliers are no longer the primary caretakers of a brand. They may actually possess the birth certificate for the brand, but they need other people to nurture, raise and educate the brand. The suppliers have gotten away from brand-building, and now it falls more and more to the wholesaler and retailer to build those brands and fill that void.
SND: Are there still opportunities for small entrepreneurs in beverage alcohol retailing? Can a small, single-unit store survive and thrive in today’s climate?
Binstein: Absolutely. There’s never an opportunity to overcharge and under-deliver. As long as we’re not using code language to ask the question, “Is it still okay to work at outrageous margins and not give people the selection they deserve?” There should have never been that opportunity, and there isn’t that opportunity now. There’s room for the Davids and the Goliaths. And they both need each other.