The beer, wine and liquor industry is about as down to earth and geographically anchored as retail business gets — so far.
The Sternberger family thinks that, too, is changing in this ever-more-networked world, and sees a strong online shopping and delivery business ahead for its White Horse Wine and Spirits store in Absecon.
“Our website for us is the future of what this business is,” said Steve Sternberg, 58, who is the son of the founders and has been running the family’s liquor store business for about three decades.
Just as he joined the business after high school and took over after 10 years, his son, Adam Sternberger, 27, has come on board and helped develop White Horse Wine’s innovative shopping/delivery service.
The service, which launched in September, starts with an educational website www.whitehorsewine.com — that puts the liquor store’s full inventory online, Adam said.
“If you put in a request for 14 bottles, it might say we currently only have 10 bottles,” he said.
Every beer and wine includes a writeup from the winery or brewer, and a quarter of them also have staff reviews, he said.
“We do tastings every week, and with customers on Thursdays and Saturdays. Twice a month we have staff training, where we’ll bring in the staff and go over new wines and beers,” said Adam Sternberger, of Ocean City.
Once the online shopping cart has the chosen beverages — and cheeses, breads and chutneys from the gourmet section, if desired — the customer selects the available day and two-hour window for the delivery of their order.
White Horse Wine and Spirits delivers to 19 area ZIP codes, serving towns from Galloway Township and Smithville west to Mays Landing and Egg Harbor City, and south to the Mainland communities and island towns to Longport, he said.
“Our hope is that this is what’s going to set us apart. The competition around here right now is pretty tight,” said Adam Sternberger, who designed the website and hired a programmer to write it. “This is like the online supermarket model in the cities.”
Delivery is free on orders over $100, and $10 for less than that. Everything is paid for online, as required by liquor regulations, and customer age and identity are checked upon delivery just as strictly as if the purchase were made in the store, he said.
Online purchases can also be picked up in the store on the White Horse Pike, or shipped to 34 states, he said.
Steve Sternberger, of Mays Landing, said convenient online ordering and delivery extends a shift in the family’s business model, one that has driven strong growth the past few years.
“We went from a small neighborhood store with a higher profit structure to a lower-margin destination store,” he said, but with a twist: no tall shelves or warehouse feel, just warehouse-style prices and knowledgeable staff.
“Because of our new store, we’re in a total growth period, starting about three years ago,” he said. “Our business has about doubled since 2009.”
The Sternbergers’ timing has been good, catching the rebound in beer, wine and liquor retail.
From a low of 48 stores with 301 employees in Atlantic County in 2008, the segment increased to 55 stores with 347 employees last year, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says.
Steve Sternberger said his late father, Harry, and his mother, Nina, of Northfield, originally started in the poultry business before buying a liquor store in Atlantic City in 1970.
In 2006 the Sternbergers bought a second store, what was then White Horse Liquors in Absecon, he said.
Then in 2009, the family sold the Atlantic City store and moved the Absecon store to a much larger location at the other end of its White Horse Pike shopping center — jumping from 4,100 square feet to 15,000 square feet, he said.
Such a move, and developing the online shopping/delivery service, are essential to succeeding in a low-margin, competitive industry, he said.
“You don’t just sit back anymore like in the old days,” Steve Sternberger said. “The competition is fierce out there, so if you do that, you’re not surviving.”
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