When Minneapolis-based Haskell’s launched its first website in 1997, the retailer was blazing a trail to promote beverage alcohol beyond the Minnesota market. In 2002, Haskells.com relaunched with an e-commerce platform for wine, adding spirits and beer six years later. At that point, the website had thousands of items available for sale and featured blogs and videos produced in-house by the Haskell’s team. Yet in the world of online merchandising, it’s critical to stay current with evolving technologies. The site that was so state-of-the-art in 2008 had outlived its usefulness by 2016. It wasn’t mobile-responsive, and its design was dated. A new version was overdue.
This summer, the 12-store Haskell’s chain got a shiny new website capable of intersecting smoothly with shoppers using any device. The new site features an intuitive interface that’s certain to boost sales. It remembers visitors’ past purchases and offers discounts based on their shopping habits. For example, a customer who previously bought a bottle of Merlot might be recommended a similar bottle. The site was developed by local firm Irish Titan, and the connection is no accident for John “Jack” Farrell Jr., the Irish-descended chairman and CEO of Haskell’s. “I don’t do websites myself,” he says. “But there are people around me who know a lot more than I do, and I let them go to work.” That approach has succeeded, earning Jack Farrell this year’s Market Watch Leaders Alumni Award for “Best Website.”
Although he migrates to his Naples, Florida, home through part of the winter and his cabin in the northern reaches of Minnesota on summer and fall weekends, Jack continues to serve as CEO of Haskell’s. He’s surrounded by family in his decision-making, with each of his sons serving in a different role: Ted is president, Brian is chief operating officer, and John III is vice president of sales. The youngest son is Patrick Beaujolais Farrell, who serves as vice president of communications and the internet. Patrick, known as Beau, has been intimately involved in the latest website redesign.
Haskell’s new site—which cost about $75,000—comes at a critical time for the chain. Revenue at the company declined 7.5 percent last year to $65 million in the face of rising competition. Among other rivals, Total Wine & More recently entered the Twin Cities market and already has six stores. “It was our first down year since I bought the business,” Jack says.
Haskell’s still has many loyal customers, however. The company remains the premier destination for French wine in the upper Midwest. Roughly two-thirds of Haskell’s sales go to wine, while spirits account for 20 percent and beer makes up 14 percent. Cigars are sold in a few stores, and two locations boast adjacent cheese shops. Overall, Haskell’s offers 22,000 wine SKUs, and 6,000 of them are available online. It has 4,500 spirits SKUs—2,500 on the website—and 4,500 beer SKUs, with 2,200 featured online. It’s a range that far outstrips the local competition. Who else offers magnums of the 2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Saint-Vivant at $9,000 or 5-liter bottles of the 1989 Château d’Yquem at $5,000—complete with glowing descriptions, expert ratings and suggestions for food pairings?
Online sales comprised 6 percent of total revenue for Haskell’s last year. The share was closer to 10 percent a decade ago, but much has changed in the world of e-commerce since then. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Amazon.com and Ebay.com now sell wine to a national audience. And Haskell’s competes with an increasing number of California wineries shipping directly to places like Minnesota and bypassing the 10.3-percent sales tax in Minneapolis.
Jack calculates that California wine clubs send 500,000 cases of wine to Minnesota each year. “Producers are our biggest competition,” he says. “Today I can go on the web and order a case directly from a winery like Caymus. Even Gallo sells online. I don’t like it, but there isn’t much we can do about it. Even so, we haven’t lost our enthusiasm for e-commerce.”
The reach of the Haskell’s website doesn’t go as far as Jack would like, however. About half of his e-commerce volume is sold to Minnesota residents, most of whom arrange for in-store pickup. The out-of-state business isn’t limited to high-end wines, and it includes some mystifying outliers. For instance, Haskell’s ships four 5-liter cases of Franzia jug wine to a customer in Ohio every three weeks. It sends 12-packs of Michelob Golden Light Draft ($12.49) to places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles where it isn’t available. “I find it very strange that some people will pay $80 in shipping costs for a case of beer,” Farrell says.
The original Haskells.com featured recipes and wine pairings, and while they were taken off for awhile, the company added them back two years ago. “We discovered that recipes are the No.-2 search category online,” says Beau, who’s the website’s chief blogger. His posts cover topics ranging from emerging Minnesota craft distillers and brewers to how to choose wine for a wedding. There are also videos starring Jack, who discusses such topics as “Why does a waiter leave a cork at your table?” and “What are legs in a wine?”
Haskell’s was founded in 1934 by the husband-and-wife team of Benny and Fritzi Haskell. Benny was a former boxer and bootlegger who operated out of Minneapolis during Prohibition, and Fritzi began importing French wine into the United States in 1935. While the rest of the country was still drinking sloe gin in the depths of the Great Depression, she was teaching Minnesotans about Bordeaux and Burgundy. Politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale eventually became Haskell’s customers. But after Benny died in 1968, Fritzi was ready to sell.
Jack entered the picture shortly thereafter. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of River Forest, Illinois, and got a pharmacy degree from Butler University in Indiana. But he didn’t like the long hours of a practicing pharmacist and instead got a job working as a manufacturer’s representative. George Mikan—who played for the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team in the 1950s and was a friend of Jack’s father-in-law—alerted the family that Haskell’s had come up for sale in 1970. Partnered with Mikan and two family members, Jack acquired the single store in downtown Minneapolis and then bought out all his partners in the following years.
Over the next few decades, Jack began adding new locations. Minnesota state law limits a retailer to one license per city or town, so as Haskell’s expanded, it placed stores in a ring around the Twin Cities, stretching as far as Faribault, 45 miles south. The largest branch is 22,000 square feet, but some are as small as 2,000 square feet. Haskell’s flagship location in Minneapolis—located in a former department store dating to 1920—spans just 6,000 square feet, including a walk-in fine wine room. The company employs 200 people. Total Wine entered the Twin Cities market two years ago, and Haskell’s has since put expansion on hold. “Every store Total Wine has opened here has been near one of my existing locations,” Jack says. “I feel like I have a target on my back.”
Haskell’s has had a longstanding flair for promotion. For the last four decades, Jack has starred on the local CBS radio station in a show called variously “The Wine Chat” and “Entertaining Ideas.” Ted serves as the resident wine guru on a local television show called “Twin Cities Live.” The company also regularly advertises in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and other local newspapers.
The website is an extension of this strategy. When it came time to upgrade Haskells.com, the company focused on mobile functionality. Irish Titan founder Darin Lynch explains that most older websites “aren’t mobile-friendly. You need separate code to accommodate people connecting from their computers versus mobile phones and tablets.” Lynch also noticed that the old Haskell’s site required too much manual input from back-office employees to update inventories. The new site uses automated point-of-sale data to ensure that listed products are actually available. It also offers customers a stream of suggested products as they browse. “Good e-commerce sites feature cross-selling and up-selling, and that’s what Haskell’s now has,” Lynch says.
The new site is compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, which requires websites to provide access for the vision-impaired. It also employs a server platform called Magento that provides constant security updates. Credit card information is stored separately with a secure payment processor. In addition, the practice of displaying the current newspaper sale flyer on the home page is being jettisoned. That’s old-fashioned marketing, Lynch says. “The younger demographic today doesn’t go looking for flyers out of newspapers,” he adds. “They want something tailored to the web.”
Lynch advises clients to rebuild their websites every four to five years, perhaps waiting as long as six or seven years if the site has been constantly refreshed. “We see many companies trying to stretch out their web redesign cycles longer than they should,” he says.
In recent years, a growing array of packaging options has added complications to e-commerce. “We carry Miller Lite in 17 different packages,” Beau says. “We also carry wines like Château Palmer in 15 different vintages and sizes. That can create issues for us on the web.”
Allocated products and online shoppers who cherry-pick goods have also been a puzzle. A couple of years ago when Haskell’s got its small allotment of Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Bourbon, the company held a drawing at one of its stores. Some 150 people showed up for a chance to buy one of 30 bottles. “We had owners of other liquor stores buying bottles that they then marked up for their own outlets, and we had regular customers buying bottles and putting them up on eBay the next day for $300 each,” Beau says. “Last year we decided to put these allocated products online at higher prices from the start, and we held some back for local customers as well.”
A bigger and better website ought to boost e-commerce sales and could become a prime avenue for future growth, considering that the company has put physical expansion to new branches on hold. “We won’t build more stores anytime soon unless something looks very compelling,” Ted says. With no plans to relinquish his responsibilities, Jack will continue to have a voice in those decisions, and he’s excited about the possibilities the website offers. For example, he wants to promote services that many customers don’t know about, like wine storage, party planning and cellar evaluations. The old website converted just 5 percent of its monthly visitors to e-commerce customers. Jack aims to boost that ratio by double or more, saying, “We’ll make our web business better and better.”