Moving happy hour out of the bar, combined with equal parts working from home and having no need to drive, has shaken up the way we drink. Area liquor stores are posting sky high sales, noting a trend toward the boujee-er booze and saying and that we’re more apt than ever to try something new.
“This is bonkers! I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Bryan Keeler.
Keeler has been general manager at Lakeside Wine & Spirits in Long Lake for the past eight years and equated March to something like having an extra month of holidays at the beginning of the year. “We basically did a Thanksgiving eve in an eight-hour stint with three people,” he said of a recent Friday.
That trend wasn’t limited to Lakeside, either. Many businesses may be on the rocks right now, but the March sales at Mound’s municipal liquor store were enough to send any businessman reeling.
When the first rumors of a stay-at-home order for Minnesota surfaced straight from the governor’s office March 20, Harbor Wine & Spirits recorded $33,692 in sales, nearly three times as much as the equivalent Friday in 2019 and far more than both a typical New Year’s or Thanksgiving eve ($26,256 and $24,712 respectively for last year).
The Monday before, on March 16, when Gov. Tim Walz announced that all bars and restaurants would have to close to dine-in service beginning St. Patrick’s Day, Harbor did $19,393 in sales. A March Monday at the store would ordinarily bring in $4,100-$4,700, previous years’ reports show.
“Every time [Gov. Walz] was going to be on the radio or on TV, and people were scared all along they were going to close the liquor stores down, people would just go crazy and we’d just get mobbed,” said Ron Gust, manager for Harbor Wine. Sales for the month were up 39 percent over last year.
It’s not just how much people are buying, it’s also what they’re buying that’s bucking the trend at both Lakeside and Harbor. Stuck in isolation, people are putting their money down for the good stuff.
“I’ll tell you that the majority of them are not holing up with inferior products,” said Gust. “The good wine, the craft beer and all that’s still selling, and actually some of it’s selling better than it ever did. They’re not shopping down I’ll say; the trend is to upgrade a little bit.”
So, too, at Lakeside: cases of boxed wine might be going out the door at a quick pace, but Keeler said bourbons priced near $80 were now just as likely to sell as those in the $40-$50 range. “They’d say, ‘you know, if I’m stuck in quarantine I’m going to buy something really, really nice,’” said Keeler of what he’s heard from his customers.
Keeler said, too, that people seem to be expanding their bars, asking for recommendations more often than in past and more willing to experiment with making the mixed drinks they can’t get from a bar or restaurant right now.
While the initial rush has slowed at both Lakeside and Harbor, Keeler said higher than usual sales are still on the horizon for Lakeside in April.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily just the panic buying,” he said, noting that this has dropped off in favor of a stocking-up mentality and, maybe, just a desire to drink more.
“I think people are drinking a lot extra. I know they’re drinking more because the bars are closed, but I also think people are just drinking more in general. If somebody had a couple glasses of wine at night, I’m going to go ahead and guess they’re drinking a whole bottle now.”
Sales at Harbor Wine for the first half of April weren’t getting watered down yet, either: For the period April 1-15, Harbor posted an increase in sales of 26 percent over 2019. And like Keeler, Gust indicated that the mentality of his customers has shifted from the panic buying that was characteristic of early and mid-March to one of just stocking up for a week or two and that with liquor stores now specifically named as essential businesses in Minnesota, it’s become just a matter of getting your booze in as few trips as possible.
A different puzzle for Gust is how much business could be traced to closures and uncertainty in time of pandemic versus his store’s recent remodel, which apart from a few structural adjustments also reworked its layout. The store’s Feb. 29 grand reopening, a day when bars and restaurants were still turning their tables, yielded just under $20,000 in sales, almost twice as much as a typical Saturday in February.
While a grand reopening isn’t representative, Gust said he and the staff never did get to truly test out the new store before things started shaking up in March.