Christine Elder knows how the Boston-area Blanchards Wines & Spirits operates, inside and out. She began working at the family business as a teenager, starting in the redemption center organizing bottles and cans, as regulated under Massachusetts’ deposit law. She’s been at the three-unit retailer full-time for the past 17 years, filling nearly every role along the way. Today, Elder serves as Blanchards’ principal.
Elder’s experience in the business has given her the ability to anticipate market shifts and adjust inventories accordingly. Whether it’s supplying hard-to-find beers from small craft brewers or offering tastings from a local distillery, she’s always thinking up ways to get new products into the hands of customers. “Our shoppers want high-quality products, but they want to discover them as well,” Elder says. “They want something interesting that’s within their budget, and they want to learn about what they’re buying.” For curating a selection that appeals to a wide array of consumers in a very competitive market, Christine Elder has been named a 2016 Market Watch Leader.
Blanchards aims to provide a wide array of quality offerings at the most competitive prices. The company is constantly searching for excellent products that are moderately priced and alerting customers to the bargain. Its wine section is one area where Elder’s team delivers on this goal. With roughly 3,000 SKUs, prices range from $4.99 a 750-ml. bottle to $999.99 for the 2005 Château Mouton Rothschild. While Blanchards offers numerous high-end items, the wine department is focused on providing a broad selection of moderately priced labels. The top-seller is the 2014 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($10.97). The stores also stock a range of wines from lesser-known producers.
The sales floors at Blanchards units range in size from 7,000 to 10,000 square feet, and wine displays are designed to create “points of entry” for shoppers, Elder says. Customer favorites and best-sellers, such as rosés, are displayed next to new or trending products. Elder notes that since customers have become more interested in rosé in recent years, Blanchards has expanded its selection to 70 labels during the summer months.
Moderately priced wines also star in the Vineyard Review, a quarterly publication available online and in print at the stores. Each edition highlights 25 wines, typically priced under $20 a 750-ml. bottle. The selection often includes well-known varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, as well as European and South American offerings that casual wine drinkers might otherwise overlook. The Blanchards wine staff samples 200 different bottles when compiling the list for each newsletter, choosing which wines to showcase based on price, quality and customer palates. Elder says her staff tries to go beyond simple tasting notes. “We do a write-up on the winery’s history, and we include pairing recommendations and our reasons for selecting it,” Elder says. “We want customers to know that by spending $8 or $11, they’re getting the best bottle of wine they’ll ever have for the price.” In the most recent newsletter, Blanchards recommended the 2014 Château Rives-Blanques Limoux Cuvée Odyssée Chardonnay ($14.97 a 750-ml. bottle), describing not just the wine’s characteristics, but also details on its region. The entry for another recommendation, the 2013 Volpaia Citto from Tuscany ($10.97), noted that the grapes were organically cultivated in the Chianti Classico and Maremma regions.
Blanchards employees also strive to be a resource for customers on the sales floor, offering help and advice. Elder says people who shop regularly at Blanchards have gotten to know the staff, and employees also know customers and their palates. “Our salespeople can make recommendations based on a customer’s previous purchases,” Elder says. “The most gratifying moment comes when people ask us to create a case for them.”
Tradition In Spirits
Blanchards has deep roots in the greater Boston market. It was first established as a beverage alcohol retailer in 1838 and purchased by Elder’s grandfather, John Corey, in 1938. The seven retail stores that now carry the Blanchards name in Massachusetts emerged from that business. Massachusetts law once limited the number of liquor licenses to three, so some members of the family opened their own Blanchards stores as separate businesses. Elder’s father, Donald Corey, and eventually Elder herself, took the helm at the three locations in West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Revere.
The stores carry roughly 6,500 SKUs of beer, wine, spirits and other items, such as cheeses and mixers. Elder notes that each unit has a slightly different product mix. Overall, wine makes up roughly 40 percent of Blanchards’ sales, followed by spirits at 35 percent and beer at 25 percent.
Blanchards stocks more than 1,500 spirits SKUs, which range in price from $4.99 a 750-ml. bottle of Oddka Wasabi vodka to $3,000 for Hennessy Paradis Impérial Cognac. Vodka is the most popular spirit, with Tito’s Handmade vodka ($19.99) taking the top spot, followed by Absolut ($19.97), Smirnoff ($15.99) and Skyy ($16.99).
Massachusetts has seen a number of new distilleries open in the past decade, and Blanchards seeks out products from craft players like Boston-based Bully Boy Distillers. The store carries eight different products from the boutique producer, including Bully Boy Boston rum ($32.90 a 750-ml. bottle), made with blackstrap molasses in the style of colonial-era Boston rum. Blanchards also offers unique products from well-known distilleries, like single barrel whiskies and añejo Tequila purchased directly from such producers as Jack Daniel’s, Buffalo Trace and Patrón. Blanchards’ management team regularly samples different barrels and selects one to be sold exclusively at the three stores. The products all have a sticker or label noting that they’ve been “bottled for Blanchards.”
Stocking hard-to-find beers also sets Blanchards apart from the competition. With roughly 2,000 SKUs in the beer department, Blanchards has a wide range of local, craft and imported labels, ranging in price from $3.49 a 22-ounce bottle of Harpoon IPA to $225 for a 24-ounce bottle of Samuel Adams Utopias. Elder and her staff don’t just sit and wait for the distributor to present new beer labels, but actively seek out emerging breweries. “We’ll call them, and sometimes these companies are so small that they don’t have distribution,” Elder says. “So we’ll go and pick up the beer directly from the brewery.”
Knowing more than just a brewery’s name and a list of products is important to Elder. “We focus on visiting the facilities and having a conversation with the brewer,” she says. Craft brews are the most popular products in Blanchards’ beer department, and Samuel Adams Boston lager ($9.69 a six-pack of bottles) is the top-seller. Producers like Boston-based Trillium Brewing Co. and Nantucket, Massachusetts’ Cisco Brewers also have an avid following. In her conversations with Cisco, Elder says she’s been told that no other retailer sells more of its beer than Blanchards.
Changes in Massachusetts law have intensified competition among legacy beverage alcohol retailers throughout the state by expanding the number of available licenses. Elder and her fellow independent retailers are seeing new players, including chains like Costco and Total Wine & More, offering low prices to entice customers. But she believes that in the long run, stores that provide a comprehensive shopping experience and excellent service will always have a place in the market.
“There are ways to compete,” Elder says. “You have to be smart and efficient. You play against their shortcomings and the products they don’t carry.” Blanchards stores offer convenience, she adds. Each location has parking, which comes at a premium in the Boston area. The manageable store size also makes for easy customer flow. “Some people don’t want to walk through a 30,000-square-foot store to buy something,” Elder notes.
Blanchards still invests in traditional media for advertising, but also uses email, social media and its website, Blanchardsliquor.com, to highlight products and pricing. Recent emails showcased wineries in France and California and included a preview of the next Vineyard Review. Through the website, customers can order products for shipment within Massachusetts or for pick-up at the West Roxbury store. The chain also has begun offering sales through a mobile application called Drync, and the company is building a custom Blanchards app.
In addition, Blanchards offers educational events, including classes on Italian wine regions and single malt Scotch whisky. The West Roxbury store has added an upstairs tasting classroom called the Vintage Room, where the focus is not only on educating customers about wine, spirits and beer, but also helping them discover new products they like. Elder wants to expand the chain’s educational program in the future.
The largest Blanchards event is the Grand Tasting, which is held in the spring and fall on a Wednesday evening. Attendees are offered a chance to taste more than 100 wines, including a number of high-end bottles from the Vintage Room at the West Roxbury location. Elder says the Grand Tasting is not only informative, but is also a social event and sales opportunity. “People might buy a bottle because they’ve just tasted it,” Elder says. “It offers a different way to shop.”