The 3 Lessons I Learned After Accidentally Buying a Liquor Store

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February 18, 2014 at 11:48 am  •  Posted in Business, Pueblo by  •  21 Comments

I bought a liquor store last year….it was sort of an accident.

No, I wasn’t binge drinking at the time. I wasn’t really shopping for a liquor store. I wasn’t even shopping for a bottle of wine. But, here I am … proud owner of a liquor license and a terrific selection of craft beers, pinot noirs and small batch bourbons….among many other standard liquor store offerings.

Since 2010 I’ve been investing in real estate in Pueblo, Colorado and when a commercial building with retail on the ground floor and multifamily residential on the second floor was listed for sale I went to take a look. I liked the building, especially the location in the heart of Pueblo’s Mesa Junction neighborhood. As I walked around with the owner, it became clear that the liquor business was being sold with the building.

Hmm. Intriguing. My college buddies would be so jealous.

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So, deciding to roll the dice, I made an offer. I fully expected a counter-offer that wasn’t sufficiently attractive, allowing me to walk away and go back to business as usual.

Instead, the owner accepted my offer…..hey, that’s great newwwwzzz….holy shit.

With the building under contract I began due diligence. I remember thinking, before I ever contemplated the notion of liquor store ownership, retail liquor stores enjoy a tidy little monopoly. Must be nice. Well, yes and no. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Since taking ownership of the store I’ve learned a few things about the liquor business that might surprise you.

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Lesson 1. The liquor business is highly complex. Retail liquor, at least in Colorado, is a fascinating business. Huge number of SKUs. The quantities of categories, brands, flavors, price points and size variations are mind-numbing. Talk about Big Data. Liquor distribution is heavily regulated in Colorado with a 3-tier system composed of manufacturers, distributors and retailers; each tier has its own set of rules and requires its own special license with an application paperwork trail that only a lawyer could love. Inventory is expensive and margins are thin, managing inventory and cash flow is extraordinarily difficult and SKU level demand is nearly impossible to forecast accurately. Running a small liquor store requires business acumen – accounting, operations, human resources, customer service, marketing, sales – the whole enchilada. If you were thinking that a liquor store is like an advanced lemonade stand you’re completely underestimating the task. This is good by the way. Communities need opportunities for individuals to learn how to run a complex business with full P&L responsibility. 

Lesson 2. Distributors hold all the power. As a retail liquor store owner I am only allowed to purchase inventory from a licensed distributor. Seems reasonable to keep tabs on who’s moving liquor around the state. But, here’s the catch. Every licensed distributor has a complete monopoly on every product they sell. So, any self-respecting liquor store should have various sizes of Jack Daniels on the shelf, right? I think I’ll call around and see who has the best deal on a case of 750 ml bottles of Jack, compare prices/terms and place the order, right? Wrong. If you want to buy Jack Daniels or any other product whether it’s a brand of beer, wine or spirits, you have your choice of exactly one distributor who carries that product. So, negotiating price isn’t an option. The only possible way you can get any sort of discount is by purchasing large volumes. As a result, the distributors pass along more favorable prices to the mega-stores who can afford to purchase 100 case deals; if you’re a small liquor store you just have to bend over and take whatever price is offered. When I learned this was the way the system worked I was stunned. What? [fade to the Caddyshack scene with Chevy Chase talking to Danny Noonan, “Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia.”]  

caddyshack-russia

You mean to tell me that we aren’t allowed to shop around for a supplier who might provide better service, better prices or both? Nope. The Budweiser distributor welcomed us to the industry by requiring cash upon delivery for the first 90 days. No checks. No 30-day net invoice. Not even a money order. Cash on the barrelhead. Nice manners, Bud. 

Lesson 3. Owning and operating a small liquor store can provide a comfortable income and job security but it’s no cash cow. If you read my About page you’ll see that I have a day job in a completely separate industry. I don’t work in the liquor store. I hired a manager to run the operation and she supervises a handful of employees who staff the store when she can’t be there. She’s paid a decent salary providing a reasonably comfortable living in Pueblo. We pay hourly employees a decent wage as well. It’s not lucrative but I’m willing to bet we pay better than comparable positions at local grocery or convenience stores. The store is humming along. We did a good bit of business around the holidays and customer traffic is steady. But here’s the thing. This business is not designed for an “absentee” owner because after payroll and inventory replenishment there’s not much left over. However, the setup is perfect for an owner-operator.

As an owner-operator of a liquor store you have roughly the same job security as a tenured college professor. The store could go under if you fail to compete effectively or if the market for liquor dries up somehow (just like a school could close or an academic department could be eliminated). And, your take-home pay will vary with some years better than others depending on volume. But, so long as you have customers who walk in the door, no one can really take away your job.

Sure, I wish the store was a huge cash cow; you know, pay myself a nice salary every month and do whatever I want all day. Sounds great in theory but as a member of the community I’m glad it’s not so easy because big corporate greed would quickly follow. It’s nice to have the owner behind the counter. Customer service is better. And, it’s nice that the liquor store provides a comfortable income. That way the owner is highly unlikely to sell booze to minors – there’s too much at stake to break the law for a few extra bucks. Mostly, it’s nice that a big company can’t swoop in and take over every liquor store in sight. In the name of low prices, they’d shut most or all of the small stores down and open newly constructed mega-locations on the outskirts of town where land is cheap and profit maximized, laying to waste neighborhood small markets within walking distance….sort of like what’s happened with the grocery industry.

This dispersed single-unit ownership system is better for the community because it provides economic activity in a variety of locations along with solid living wage jobs that can’t be readily outsourced or automated. More people have skin in the game and a strong incentive to take care of their stretch of sidewalk in the community. In fact, aside from the distributor monopolies and the cumbersome government licensing process, it just might be a model worth considering for distribution of other commodities, like fresh food.

But that’s a topic for another blog post.

 

 

 

 

21 Comments

  1. Pingback: Liquor Store For Sale | Geographical Perspectives

  2. Kat / March 18, 2014 at 4:31 pm / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    Are you feeling any impact from big box stores?

    Thanks,
    Kat

    • Justin / March 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm / Reply

      Hi Kat – it’s hard to say. I think if someone is going out to do a big shop they are more likely to go to one of the big box liquor stores rather than to our small store. But for most of our customers the convenience of our location is a more important factor. Other customers come specifically to see our manager and benefit from her knowledge to get good wine or craft beer/spirits recommendations. Hope that answers the question for you. Best, Justin

  3. Pingback: A 3-Point Plan for Marijuana Distribution in the City of Pueblo | Geographical Perspectives

  4. Brenda Fisher / August 7, 2014 at 11:31 pm / Reply

    Thanks for the info. My husband and I would like to buy or start one in a small northern colorado town. With the oil and gas influx the traffic would be good. I am an accountant and am looking to change. This would be my undertaking.

    • Justin / August 8, 2014 at 9:44 am / Reply

      Hi Brenda, best of luck to you and your husband! Be sure to start with a good war chest of cash so you can take advantage of volume deals on your best SKUs! Cheers, Justin

  5. César / August 12, 2014 at 11:29 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    Very good information and clearly explained. My partner and I are studying the possibility of buying a liquor store in Miami and we are just studying the same issues you mention in your blog.

    Good job, thank you.
    Caesar.

    • Justin / August 12, 2014 at 11:44 am / Reply

      Hi Caesar, thanks for the comment! Glad to hear that some of the info is transferable to other States. Best wishes to you and your partner! Cheers, Justin

  6. Adam / October 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    How small of a store is Mesa Junction? Just trying to differentiate between a Mom and Pop operation and a megastore.

    Thanks,
    Adam

    • Justin / October 20, 2014 at 10:28 pm / Reply

      Hi Adam, the store area is 2600 sq ft with about half of that accessible to customers. We have 2 employees working during business hours but just 1 register. Not sure if that’s what you’re looking for – I can’t reveal financial information here. Best, JH

  7. Tom / December 18, 2014 at 10:27 am / Reply

    Hi – I’m thinking of just specialty beer (and maybe wine) shop in CA. License is *much* cheaper, but can’t make as much per sq. ft. of space, and will require substantial refrigeration. Do you think this model is viable? Or is hard alcohol required to make it profitable?

    • Justin / December 18, 2014 at 1:43 pm / Reply

      Hi Tom,
      I don’t really have sufficient expertise to provide useful guidance here. What I will say is that, at least in Colorado, profit margins on liquor (hard alcohol) are quite a bit higher than they are for beer. I would imagine you would also lose a whole lot of revenue as beer aficionados may also need to grab a pint of Jack Daniels from time to time. Rather than focusing on specific product categories I would suggest focusing on a specific customer segment. Talk to beer aficionados and find out what they would want on the shelves. I’m guessing they would want to see some standard wine and liquor offerings for convenience. Hope this helps! Best of luck!
      Justin

      • Tom / December 18, 2014 at 9:36 pm / Reply

        Thanks! Great info.

    • Jeff / December 27, 2014 at 7:02 am / Reply

      Where in CA Tom?

  8. Abrar Siddiqui / December 29, 2014 at 4:22 pm / Reply

    What’s going to happen with the new petition to let grocery stores sell hard stuff? Would this pass? will it put a lot of liquor stores out of business?

    Thanks!

    • Justin / December 29, 2014 at 4:55 pm / Reply

      Grocery chains have been trying to change the liquor laws for years. The liquor lobby seems to have the upper hand, at least for now. If laws were to change, liquor store owners would need to innovate to survive. Some locations would have no chance.

      • Justin / December 29, 2014 at 4:56 pm / Reply

        This applies only to Colorado.

  9. Ruben / January 4, 2015 at 12:47 am / Reply

    I know you cant mention profits or cash flow, but could you share an estimated ROI from your store?

    • Justin / January 7, 2015 at 12:43 pm / Reply

      Hi Ruben, it’s difficult to say and probably warrants a separate blog post. I’ve now sold the store and still own the real estate. The new store owner will probably exercise an option to purchase the real estate in 2015. When all is said and done I expect to have at least doubled my investment capital. Probably more. But my profit has more to do with buying the store + real estate at a good price than anything else. I didn’t make any money operating the store. If you’re looking for a buy/hold situation you have to be willing to work at the store as your regular gig for it to make sense. As a passive investor you can either make money by flipping, like I did, or by purchasing a higher volume store with more potential to generate regular cash flow. However, this latter option requires a much larger pile of cash up-front. Hope this helps. Best, Justin

  10. David Belmonte / January 21, 2015 at 12:30 pm / Reply

    Thanks you for this article i found if very informative. I am looking for a small business opportunity in NY. I understand this business isnt a cash cow and the margins are thin but you also describe is as stable and able to provide a comfortable living. Would you suggest this a a valid first time business owner opportunity? what percentage of your gross income results in owners cash? this is and example of a store for sale in my area does this seem reasonable?
    Asking Price$199,000.00
    Gross Revenues$589,862.00
    Financing$ 199,000.00 Down and Sales Price does not include inventory
    Owner’s Cash Flow$91,920.60

    • Justin / January 21, 2015 at 2:18 pm / Reply

      Hi David, glad my post was helpful! In your example, the asking price is about 33% revenue which is a bit high. Try for something in the 25-30% range so if you like what you see maybe offer $150k. If the owner is providing financing it will be more difficult to get a lower price. Another key factor is real estate – can you buy the real estate? If not, are good lease terms available, etc. Cash flow of $90k on a store doing $590k is solid and probably requires that you work a *lot* of hours. You could hire help if you’re willing to pay yourself less. I do think a liquor store is a decent first time business owner opportunity. Just be sure you have a good pile of cash in the war chest for start up expenses. You’ll make mistakes – some of them expensive – and you need a cushion. Think of it as tuition to be paid. As a reward, so long as the location is good, you’ll have job security most can only dream about. And 90k/yr isn’t a bad salary to go with it. Just don’t count on it in year 1. Hope this helps. Cheers, Justin

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