Steve Sternberger remembers the conversation well. Concerned that New Jersey beverage alcohol laws would change and grocery stores would be given the right to sell wine and beer, the co-owner of White Horse Wine & Spirits in Absecon discussed adding another location with his son and partner, Adam Sternberger. “He said, ‘Dad, rather than two stores, let’s do one really good store,’” Steve recounts of the discussion, some five or so years ago. “I always wanted to move ahead fast, and he was the voice saying to slow down.”
That “slow down” has been a home run for the southern New Jersey store, located about 7 miles west of Atlantic City, as the duo—along with Adam’s wife, Elizabeth McCabe—jumped on the opportunity to double the store’s size. The expansion increased its beverage alcohol offerings and added freshly prepared dishes and gourmet foods, as well as an extensive and beautifully merchandised giftware selection. Today, White Horse Wine & Spirits—named for the road on which it’s located—is a 33,500-square-foot venue that comprises retail and warehouse space, with annual sales revenue in excess of $10 million. For their vision and business acumen, which transformed their liquor store into a major destination for spirits, wine, beer and food lovers, Steve Sternberger, Adam Sternberger and Elizabeth McCabe have been named 2017 Market Watch Leaders.
Steve grew up in the beverage alcohol retail business, working at his father’s Atlantic City liquor store, All Star Liquors, for more than 35 years. In 2006 he obtained Absecon’s only liquor store license with the purchase of the 4,000-square-foot White Horse Liquors, located in the Marketplace at Absecon shopping center. Soon after, Adam joined his father in the business.
With the closing of the mall’s Acme supermarket, the Sternbergers relocated the store to a subdivided 13,000 square-foot space and renamed it White Horse Wine & Liquors in 2009. McCabe, who grew up in the restaurant industry, joined the retail enterprise in 2012, when the team decided to more than double the size of the store by taking over the remaining area from the former grocery store, adding a gourmet market and mammoth warehouse space. Today, McCabe manages the food market and in-store kitchen and purchases all giftware and accessory items. Steve purchases all big-brand beverage items, while his son covers the more esoteric labels. “I buy the standards. He buys the goodies,” Steve explains.
Adam describes Absecon and the nearby communities of Pleasantville, Galloway Township and Atlantic City as boasting diverse demographics with a growing number of young families. While White Horse is located on the thoroughfare that brings visitors from the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City, he and his father call the site less than ideal now that there’s no grocery store. “There’s nothing to draw people,” Steve says. “But I think that’s what has made us so diligent with the renovation. Now, if people are coming to this mall, they’re coming to our store.”
At White Horse, shoppers find an attractive and thoughtfully arranged store with low-rise wooden shelving, few case stackings and little supplier p-o-s, and background music from Adam’s own playlists. The wine department, the food market and giftware occupy much of the front of the store. Spirits and a tasting bar are located in the center of the store, while the back portion includes a temperature-controlled fine wine and whisk(e)y room, beer multipacks, more giftware, an education room and a fully equipped staff break room—Steve’s favorite feature. Nearly 40 cooler doors line the back and an adjacent wall. Extensive inventory, meanwhile, is housed in the store’s rear warehouse. This extra space allows the retailer to buy in bulk from distributors and stock up on product.
Merchandising is far from an afterthought at White Horse. Cheese and chips are presented in a large wooden wagon at the front of the store, Bourbon is displayed on oak barrels and wine is paired with food in numerous displays. A “Buy Local” area features regional wines, beers and spirits, along with locally made food items, and has received a lot of traffic. Adam credits his wife for engineering many of the displays. McCabe says she finds inspiration from a range of sources, including upscale stores, restaurants and Pinterest, when it comes to merchandising the likes of bar accessories, gift baskets and other giftware items. “My phone is full of screenshots and pictures,” she says.
Surging Spirits Sales
Spirits account for 35 percent of the shop’s sales, followed by wine at 30 percent, beer at 25 percent and food and accessories at 10 percent. “Spirits have really grown for us in the last few years,” Steve says. White Horse offers about 2,200 spirits SKUs, priced from $10 a 750-ml. of Seagram’s vodka to $3,000 for Louis XIII de Rémy Martin Cognac. Tito’s vodka ($19.99) is the store’s best-selling spirits brand, while Espolòn Tequila ($24.99 to $37.99) is also a top performer. “The demand is through the roof for Bourbon, but the supply isn’t there for the small labels,” Adam notes. Craft gin is also on the rise, driven by brands like Bluecoat ($28.99), Barr Hill ($36.99) and Greenhook Ginsmiths ($32.99).
The store offers about 3,500 wine SKUs, priced from $5 a 750-ml. of the 2015 Crane Lake Chardonnay to $700 a 1.5-liter of the 2010 Opus One. “Our sweet spot is $10 to $20,” Adam says, noting that the majority of the shop’s customers aren’t wine experts. “They’re just looking for a bottle of wine. They don’t need to know who the winemaker is or the terroir.” To help customers explore new offerings, Adam reorganized the wine department by flavor profile last year, with hanging banners now directing shoppers to “sweet wines” or “light red wines” rather than varietal or country of origin. Adam says the move has been effective. “We’re selling more Portuguese wines,” he notes, citing labels like Paxis red blend ($9.99 a 750-ml.). Lesser-known California wines like the 2014 Bacchus Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.99) are also doing well. One of the store’s most successful wine packages is its own premade mixed wine cases ($99 for a dozen 750-ml. bottles), featuring 12 reds, 12 whites, half and half, or 12 wines from the same country of origin. “We call them our magic cases,” Adam says.
White Horse stocks approximately 2,500 beer SKUs, priced from $4.10 a six-pack of 16-ounce cans of Colt 45 to $34.99 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. Coors Light, meanwhile, is the store’s best-seller “by far,” according to Adam. “Corona Extra is also a monster, and we sell a ton of Modelo Especial,” he says. “Lagunitas is probably our largest-volume craft beer.” The retailer also adds that overall craft beer has slowed, “but we’re seeing an uptick in local beer sales.” Popular New Jersey brands include Cape May Brewing Co., Carton Brewing Co. and Brotherton Brewing Co. The store features a mixed six-pack section where customers can choose from 50 different beer singles and receive a 10-percent discount at checkout.
“Staff is everything here,” Adam says of the store’s two-dozen employees. “They’re the face of our company,” agrees his father, noting that full-time employees receive generous benefits, including 401(k) retirement accounts and 14 paid days off a year. Adam holds frequent training sessions for sales staff, which is sometimes augmented with supplier training.
Customer education programs include in-store craft beer tastings led by suppliers, and wine and cheese pairing classes ($10 a person) and rare Bourbon tastings ($40 to $50) led by Adam in the shop’s classroom. For the last few years, White Horse has offered a Customer Appreciation Day event in early December, featuring discounts on wine cases, giveaways and food from local vendors. “It’s grown to be our second-largest grossing day of the year after Christmas Eve,” Adam says. In May, the store hosted its first “Taste of White Horse” event, which had a more food-centric focus and featured 15 percent off all food and wine purchases “We did double our usual Saturday sales,” Adam says.
The store’s marketing support is a mix of traditional and digital advertising, with the latter growing in importance. White Horse runs print ads in local newspapers during the last quarter of the year and sends email blasts to some 4,000 recipients. The company recently updated its website, Whitehorsewine.com, via the Shopify e-commerce platform, allowing it to completely customize the content. In January, White Horse changed its shipping policy for online sales, moving to a $15 flat fee for up to 100 pounds of product. “Business doubled,” Adam says. Still, he puts online sales at just 2 percent of overall revenue, with an average order totaling about $150. McCabe handles most of White Horse’s social media posts on Facebook and Instagram. “Social media is so important to craft beer and craft Bourbon,” Adam says. “Our customers know we receive our craft beer deliveries on Thursdays, so they’re waiting to see what’s arrived.”
Sales at White Horse are expected to keep growing as a result of the focus the owners have placed on product selection, fair pricing, customer service and gourmet food. “I knew that if I created the right kind of store, we’d attract a lot of customers. Like the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’ if you build it, they will come,” Steve says. Although he and his partners could potentially expand the concept to up to six New Jersey locations, Sternberger is no longer interested. “One is enough for me,” he says.