Whoever said that the local merchant is a thing of the past has never been to Magruder’s in Washington, D.C. The store’s roots date back more than 150 years, and while it has shifted its focus more toward beverage alcohol than grocery items of late, Magruder’s continues to attentively serve its neighbors in the Chevy Chase, D.C., area, as well as customers from farther away. “It’s one thing to have products to sell, but another to have a staff that caters to customer needs and queries and provides a personal touch,” says owner Ki Yoon. “This is a community store, and we add to the fabric of the community.”
Founded in 1865 by Commodore John Magruder, a Confederate general during the Civil War, Magruder’s has been a D.C. landmark for generations. The company has always been privately held, and grew to as many as 10 locations in the District and surrounding suburbs by 2005. But by 2013, the recession and fierce competition from larger chains forced the then-owners to shutter four of the remaining five stores. Yoon acquired the fifth store—the Chevy Chase location on Connecticut Avenue, and traditionally the most drinks-focused of the group—that year.
“Having grown up in the area, I knew what an institution Magruder’s was to D.C. and Chevy Chase,” Yoon says. “In addition to its historical significance, the store also played an important role in the community. I wanted to maintain that.” Magruder’s shoppers include residents of the Chevy Chase neighborhood, as well as people from all over the Washington metro area, according to wine and spirits manager Bill Townsend. He describes the shoppers as well-educated and affluent. Still, Yoon—who also owns Vinny’s Grill, Bar & Lounge in Stafford, Virginia—concedes that while he had a background in the beverage alcohol business prior to purchasing Magruder’s, the retail world was new to him.
Nevertheless, the acquisition has been a success. Annual sales revenue at the 6,000-square-foot store is in excess of $10 million, according to Yoon, representing “tremendous growth” in the five years since he purchased it. “Since Ki has taken over the store, our image has changed,” Townsend says. “It used to be more of a grocery store atmosphere focused on inexpensive products. Now we offer one of the best selections of wine and spirits in the Washington metro area,” with up to 5,000 total beverage alcohol SKUs available. Beverage alcohol accounts for about 80 percent of sales at Magruder’s, which employs 43 people, some of whom have worked at the store for more than 20 years.
Beverage Alcohol Surge
Magruder’s grocery is adjacent to the company’s smaller produce market. Yoon says that while the two businesses have separate entrances, there’s a big crossover in customers. “A lot of people appreciate that they can pick up their produce and wine on the same trip,” he says. Years ago, the produce and grocery were located in the larger space, while beverage alcohol was sold from the current produce shop, demonstrating how drinks have become such a vital part of the company’s mission. “We established ourselves as having a great selection of spirits and wine at low prices, so the extra space was needed,” Yoon explains.
The store’s emphasis on wine and spirits is immediately apparent when stepping inside the doors. Signage highlights “Wines of the World,” with shelving organized by country of origin including France, Italy, Spain, Chile and Australia. Featured spirits are often merchandised in the front of the store. Beer also has its place, with a refrigerated beer section running for 60 feet, warm multipacks merchandised on the floor and a tasting bar featuring draft beer for growlers and large-format bottles. A bustling deli and cheese department is located in the rear of the store, offering signature sandwiches, rotisserie chicken and Boar’s Head cold cuts, with snacks, non-alcoholic beverages and a soda fountain nearby. Bottles of wine are often cross-merchandised with cheese.
“I’m a big fan of merchandising,” says Townsend, pointing to promotions that offer customers a bottle of tonic for just a penny when buying a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin ($24.99 a 750-ml.), or a free bottle of orange juice with the purchase of a bottle of Ruffino Prosecco ($9.49). The wine and spirits manager also supports educational p-o-s materials, particularly signage that provides product descriptions and ratings.
Wine accounts for about half of Magruder’s beverage alcohol sales, followed by spirits at 30 percent and beer at 20 percent. The store stocks up to 3,000 wine SKUs, ranging in price from $5.99 a 750-ml. of 2014 Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon to $450 for the 2008 Vérité Le Désir Sonoma red blend. Wines priced between $12 and $15 a 750-ml. are the store’s sweet spot, and the shop is known for offering values on wine, along with attentive service. “You can get good wines for a good price,” Townsend explains. “You can come in here and get help, whether it’s for dinner or a party.”
While domestic wines are the shop’s best sellers, Magruder’s also emphasizes its international selections. “We sell a lot of Rhône wines,” says Townsend, noting that French rosés are among the store’s most popular wines in warm weather months. “Every year for the last three years, we’ve increased our rosé pre-orders, and every year we’re short. Rosé sales have been growing at an annual rate of 15 percent.” Kim Crawford wines ($11.99 to $15.99) from New Zealand are the store’s top-selling wine brand.
Magruder’s offers thousands of spirits SKUs. Johnnie Walker Black ($34.99 a 750-ml.) is the store’s top-selling spirits label, according to Yoon, while Tito’s vodka ($24.99) is growing rapidly. “Mixology, in general, is the big trend here,” Townsend says. “Gin has taken off, especially craft gins.” Whisk(e)y sales are also surging. “This is a big whisk(e)y store,” Townsend adds. “Bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey are all doing well.” Like other leading retailers, Magruder’s has worked recently with Bourbon producers on special barrels of brands including Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, Maker’s Mark and WhistlePig ($85.99).
The store offers up to 800 beer SKUs, priced from $5.49 a six-pack of 12-ounce cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to $37.99 for a 750-ml. of Cascade Sang Royal Ale. Craft brews continue to grow at Magruder’s, sales manager Ben Page says, with IPAs going strong. “We have a good mix of customers,” he remarks. “We have people coming in looking for rare one-offs, as well as people who support their favorite breweries.” Leading imports like Heineken, Corona Extra, Modelo Especial and Stella Artois are also fast sellers, he notes. Top-selling brews tend to be the featured beer of the week, such as the recently promoted Rogue Dead Guy ale ($9.99 a six-pack). And for the last four years, Magruder’s has offered six constantly rotated draft brews for growler fills, generally priced from $14.99 to $21.99 a 32- or 64-ounce growler.
To drive customers into the store and promote its offerings, Magruder’s employs traditional and contemporary approaches. The store has been a longtime advertiser in The Washington Post, with a weekly ad touting featured products. Yoon concedes that while the ad is expensive, “it does drive the business to a certain extent. Most of our customers are very loyal and have shopped here for years, so they’re used to seeing it.” The print ad is complemented by digital support, including ads on Yelp and a social media presence via Facebook and Twitter.
In-store events are frequent and include regular wine, spirits and beer tastings on the weekends. An upstairs room is used for special private tastings and a monthly wine education series. The classes ($39.99 a person) are led by a professional wine educator and feature six wines and light fare. “It’s informal and educational at the same time,” Page says. Larger in-store events include annual Oktoberfest celebrations, launch parties for special Bourbon releases and a customer appreciation weekend that raises money for charitable organizations.
While Magruder’s has been a Washington, D.C. institution for generations and has a storied past, current management has its eyes set on the future. In 2015, the company began selling beverage alcohol online via its website, Magrudersofdc.com. Townsend says online sales only account for a small fraction of the store’s total sales, but the site receives a lot of traffic.
Yoon’s success with Magruder’s has inspired him to open a boutique wine shop and wine bar in nearby Maryland, planned for this year. “I think it will create a synergy,” he says of the currently unnamed location. Like Magruder’s, the new venue will “serve our customers,” the retailer vows. “There’s always room for a store that provides a personal touch and is a part of the community.”