Ryan Maloney believes the key to retail success is treating the people who visit his store not just as customers, but as fans. The owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, aspires to a “try before you buy” philosophy and works closely with his staff to create that experience for shoppers. Customers can sample wine using the store’s Enomatic machines during regular operating hours and at its tasting events, which are held several times a week. Julio’s also hosts New England’s largest annual whisk(e)y festival, and it offers a mobile application that allows people to snap a picture of the bottle they’re drinking and order it from Juliosliquors.com with just a few clicks. “We want customers to take pride in being Julio’s shoppers,” Maloney explains.
Massachusetts recently expanded the limit on liquor licenses, and the change is creating a much more competitive market. Julio’s faces some of the toughest competition, with nine beverage alcohol retailers located in a five-mile radius, including popular chains like Wegmans and BJ’s Wholesale Club. Julio’s differentiates itself by offering products and experiences customers can’t find elsewhere. “We see people copying what we’re doing,” Maloney says. “I tell my staff to just make sure the competition doesn’t do it better.” For his commitment to cultivating the in-store experience and hosting special events, Ryan Maloney has received the Market Watch Leaders Alumni Award for “Best Marketing.”
The Customer Experience
It’s easy to spot the difference the minute you walk into Julio’s. The 20,000-square-foot retail space has high ceilings and a number of eye-catching displays—from a motorcycle promoting Bulldog gin to repurposed Bourbon barrels showing off the hottest products from Kentucky. Maloney wants the store to look completely different from the competition. “We’re not just aiming to put stacks in a case cart,” he says. “That’s what everybody else does.”
Those who want to indulge in a cigar can find a wide selection in the Vigilant Smoke Shop located near the front of the store, as well as a specialty food section featuring a range of hot sauces—including a few that require buyers to sign a waiver because they’re so spicy. The Jim Beam Cold Storage Warehouse hosts tastings and private events that are popular with loyal whisk(e)y customers. The small space feels like a private club, with high-end bottles of whisk(e)y on display in back-lit cases. The selection in the Cold Storage Warehouse goes beyond what’s available in the spirits section on the floor.
In all, Julio’s boasts more than 3,000 spirits SKUs, ranging from $6.99 a 750-ml. bottle of Colonial Club Amaretto liqueur to $15,000 for the 50-year-old Glen Grant single malt Scotch whisky. The top-selling spirit is Tito’s Handmade vodka ($19.99 a 750-ml. bottle), although whiskies are growing fast and Julio’s has developed a reputation as a whisk(e)y destination. The store hosts “Whisk(e)y Wednesdays” each week to give customers a chance to sample new products.
Julio’s offers more than 2,500 beer SKUs, ranging from $1.29 a 12-ounce bottle of Budweiser to $249.99 for a 6-liter bottle of St. Bernardus Abt 12 quadrupel from Belgium. The beer section features case stacks of domestic favorites like Budweiser and Coors, a large display of 22-ounce and 750-ml. bottles of specialty labels and ciders, and numerous coolers filled with craft brews. Maloney says customers are encouraged to mix six-packs so they can try what’s new. Craft beer is king at Julio’s, with local products proving particularly popular. Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union ($9.99 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles) has been the top-selling beer SKU for the last three years. When the Framingham, Massachusetts–based Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers introduced 12-packs of Hoponius Union in October 2015, that SKU took second place. Maloney says other local beers from such producers as Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts, also sell well.
Julio’s focus on “try before you buy” is most evident in the wine section. The store offers more than 3,500 wine SKUs, ranging in price from $6.99 a 750-ml. bottle of Yellow Tail Chardonnay to $524.99 for the E. Guigal La Landonne Côte Rôtie. The Angel Share Tasting Room and Enomatic system offer more than 40 wines for sampling at all times. In-store tastings are offered every Thursday evening and most Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m. Julio’s top-selling wines are mid-priced, such as the 2014 Midnight Cellars Midnight Estate Chardonnay ($17.99 a 750-ml. bottle). “Midnight Cellars is a great smaller producer that offers wine at a quality level above its price point,” Maloney says.
Events And More
Below the main retail floor is the “Metro Station,” which is decorated to look like a train station. It’s used for special events, brand launches, pairing dinners and tasting classes. The space has long tables facing a bar for serving and demonstrations, as well as a television screen for multimedia presentations. Tastings are offered for free, with an option to buy products after the event. “One customer joked that it’s the most expensive free class he ever took,” Maloney says.
A typical event draws around 400 people, but the company’s largest undertaking is the free Grand Dram walk-around tasting. It closes out Julio’s five-day Go! Whisk(e)y Weekend, which is typically held in February and attended by 1,200 people. The most recent Go! Whisk(e)y Weekend included a range of ticketed activities, from a tasting of rare whiskies with Skinner Auctioneers to a private dinner with Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe. A lineup of seminars hosted by distillers and brand ambassadors covered such topics as Taiwanese whisky, independent Scottish distilleries and bottled-in-bond whiskey. Many attendees are members of Julio’s Loch & K(e)y Society. The whisk(e)y-focused club offers opportunities for special tastings such as the annual Ardbeg Day and also gives members a chance to earn points by posting reviews on the group’s website. Points can then be redeemed for glassware, hats, bottle openers and other accessories. “Our slogan for the club is, ‘There’s never a bad day for good whisk(e)y,’” Maloney says.
People often come to Julio’s events to discover something new, but Maloney aims to expand customer palates even further with a series of cross-promotional events. Julio’s recently hosted a “Beer vs. Wine” food-pairing contest. “Wine and beer geeks battled it out to see who could do the best job at pairing,” Maloney explains. A “Stout and Port” event also seeks to get wine into the hands of beer drinkers and vice versa. Julio’s recently started partnering with local restaurants and producers to offer food pairings and intimate dinners, such as its “Dinner Under the Stairs” series. Attended by 30 to 40 guests, the events pair small plates with spirits, wine or beer from the night’s sponsor. A recent evening matched a variety of Grand Marnier products with such dishes as cocoa-dusted short rib, served by Pepper’s Fine Catering in Northborough, Massachusetts.
Julio’s hosts larger store-wide events about four times a year. These happenings include the New England Beer Fest and the Funk Fest, which features farmhouse and sour beers, pungent cheeses, and “funky-flavored” wines and spirits. The company’s Gin Rummy tasting event showcases gin and rum products and draws enthusiasts of both categories. “Gin Rummy is now the premier event for gin and rum in New England,” Maloney says.
Maloney has shifted Julio’s marketing strategy away from traditional media and toward digital and emerging technology. The store’s email distribution list contains about 10,000 addresses. Every Thursday, customers receive “Flash Sale” messages that offer generous discounts in either limited quantities or for a short time, including rare items, hidden gems and eclectic selections. According to Maloney, the emails have an open rate of 30 percent to 40 percent, well above the industry standard.
There are several places to find Julio’s on Facebook as well. A general page promotes the store’s offerings, events and sales, and specialty pages target beer, wine, spirits and whisk(e)y customers directly. “People said that was the wrong way to do it, but I disagree,” Maloney says. “Shoppers want only what they’re interested in. You can always sign up for both pages, but beer people want to know about beer and wine people want to know about wine.” The general Julio’s Facebook page has about 7,500 followers, and the beer page has more than 3,000 followers. Julio’s reaches these customers through promoted posts and links to the company’s blog, which features articles on topics like understanding French wine regions and what makes a good summer ale.
In addition, Maloney writes a column in the Sturbridge, Massachusetts–based magazine Foodies of New England, and he cohosts a two-hour radio show called “It’s the Liquor Talking” with local aficionado Randall Bird. The program—which focuses on beer, wine and spirits—is broadcast on a local AM station every Saturday and is released as a podcast on the store’s website the following Monday. “It’s another way for people to get engaged with Julio’s,” Maloney notes.
The Julio’s mobile app further connects staff and customers. “It’s like Pandora for spirits,” Maloney says, although the app goes far beyond tracking customers’ tastes. Users can take pictures of products they like and request purchase through Julio’s. A staff member then gets in touch with the customer and either reserves the requested item for pick-up or—if it’s not in stock—lets the shopper know that Julio’s will look into getting it. Customers can sign up for events through the app, which lists Julio’s full schedule. They can also rate each in-store tasting and reserve bottles for purchase.
The website, blog, podcast, social media accounts and app all revolve around the goal of establishing Julio’s as a go-to destination when customers have a question about beverage alcohol. Another key to the strategy is providing access to knowledgeable staff. “We encourage our employees to take classes and attend events so they can learn more about these products,” Maloney says. “We also work with them to get further training outside the store. Our wine director, Toni Deluca, is a certified sommelier. We train the department heads, and they train the staff in what they’re selling.”
Maloney wants customers to feel comfortable bringing their questions to Julio’s. “If it has to do with alcohol, I’m their expert,” he says. “It’s all about establishing the store as a resource.” As he looks toward the future, Maloney aims to grow the business beyond Westborough. “With some bigger players moving in, we’re looking to expand,” he notes. “I’m being patient and looking for opportunities.”