NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Wine connoisseurs along with just plain folks find just what they are looking for at the wine department of Laurenzo's Italian Center here.
Located at the busy corner of 163rd Street and West Dixie Highway (Route 1) in this faded resort community, Laurenzo's has established a reputation as the place to go for fine wines, in addition to Italian specialty meats, seafood, produce, imported grocery items and bakery products.
Some 6,000 wine labels line the green linoleum 1960s vintage shelves, which span five aisles and occupy about 3,000 square feet of the store's 12,000 square feet of selling space.
Stacked six high and due for a remodeling to walnut wood in the near future, the shelves contain items ranging from a $3.99 bottle of house Chardonnay to $700 bottles of imported champagne, which are kept under lock and key.
The wine department is located in the middle of the store between the cafeteria and service seafood departments, and alongside the frozen foods and specialty grocery departments. In addition, there is a large cold storage room in the stock area of the store.
Laurenzo's also sells wine at its Ben & Bob's 7,000-square-foot branch store located in the Sunrise area of Weston, Fla.
"Our wine sales keep setting records, even when the industry is flat. We're a destination store -- people travel from all over for certain specialty items, different types of oils and things you can get only here, that are unique to this store," he says.
Although the immediate neighborhood surrounding the store has deteriorated in recent years, Laurenzo's draws walk-in traffic from nearby Aventura and Williams Island, where condominiums sell for $3 million or $4 million.
"We do a lot of deliveries to the affluent areas, and we ship to residents throughout the state," Adler says.
Although supermarkets in Florida can sell wine, Laurenzo's differentiates itself from Winn-Dixie Stores and Publix Super Markets, and wine and liquor stores like ABC and Beverages, & more! not only by its selection, but also by its level of service.
During store hours at least one knowledgeable salesperson is on the selling floor. During busy periods two or three salespeople assist customers. And during the holidays at least four salespeople are on the selling floor at all times.
Adler explains that what enables Laurenzo's to carry more wines than an average supermarket is that salespeople are knowledgeable about the product and can successfully sell it.
"Although you are free to take what you want off the shelf, our wine department is service-oriented, as if you were buying seafood or getting deli," Adler says. "We have become so service-oriented that we are in trouble if we do not have a sales assistant out on the floor at all times."
Co-owner David Laurenzo notes that while some customers come in knowing exactly what they want, a large percentage want personal attention and service.
"That is what sets us apart from the supermarkets -- that expertise, knowledge and service," Laurenzo says.
But where Laurenzo's really sets itself apart from the competition is in the breadth of its selection.
For example, Laurenzo's has at least 88 stockkeeping units of champagne in its department, including Louis Roederer Cristal Rose Champagne at $220 a bottle and Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Rose at $190 a bottle.
By comparison, the Winn-Dixie store located diagonally across West Dixie Highway has 10 SKUs of mainstream domestic champagnes, like Tott's, Andre and Cook's. Winn-Dixie's wine department consists of one aisle of 13 3-foot shelf sections five shelves high.
Adler admits that stocking 6,000 varieties of wine can lead to some "dead spots" in the inventory, but for the most part inventory turns are satisfactory, since wine is often hand sold.
"Most supermarkets have to carry a selection that sells itself. If our department were strictly self-service it would have to be trimmed back dramatically. Because then you have to depend on the customers recognizing the wine and picking it themselves. Then you don't want to carry five merlots. We would die that way," Adler says.
Adler says Laurenzo's has a strong mix of wines from throughout the world -- not just Italy, although it has one of the largest selections of Italian wines on the Eastern Seaboard. The store also carries wine from France, Eastern Europe, South America, Australia, South Africa and upcoming regions in North Africa, including Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
"They are not big sellers, but we put them in because the wines are good. We try to be a trendsetter," Adler says. He explains that Laurenzo's aims to be an international wine store, with good products from all over the world.
For the most part, wines are merchandised on the shelves according to country or region. Within each regional set, they are merchandised by variety. Hand-written cardboard signs designate the regional sets on the shelves.
Domestic wines are also given a lot of space, particularly those from California, with 2,000 varieties being stocked. However, the store has little representation from other areas of the United States, primarily because of what Adler calls poor quality and duplication of what is grown in California.
Wines from other domestic regions account for only 2% of sales, he says. Still, he notes that many areas, like the Finger Lakes Region of New York, are now producing good quality wines.
"I would buy wine from downtown Chicago if it were a good wine," Adler says. He doesn't carry wines from Florida's fledging wine industry, though, even to placate the tourist trade. According to the wine merchant, most Florida wine is of poor quality.
Adler stocks wines to meet every occasion and budget. That is why at Laurenzo's wines ranging from $3.99 rub shoulders with wines costing $200 or more a bottle.
Unlike some upscale wine shops, Adler doesn't scoff at $3.99 bottles of vino -- not when he is competing against a bottle of Coke that sells for 99 cents.
"I am a big believer in people enjoying wine. I don't believe in turning people away," he says. "Wine is an expensive beverage. There is no cheap wine when you put it in the context of other beverages."
But to help improve margins and cut costs, Adler says, Laurenzo's is one of the few supermarkets that builds sales by buying Bordeaux futures. Laurenzo's puts up a substantial amount of money about 18 months before the Bordeaux wines are ready to go to market, Adler explains.
"You buy Bordeaux futures to buy in at a set price that is much lower than when the wines land, and also to reserve the wines for your customers," he notes.
While Laurenzo's does stock well-known brands, like Almaden, Inglenook and Carlo Rossi, it also has many small brands that Adler has sourced from his wine-tasting expeditions around the world.
In the 12 years Adler has been at Laurenzo's, he has been to Italy seven or eight times. He has also made numerous visits to vineyards in France and California.
In explaining why such trips are necessary, he says, "You are also developing relationships and tasting wines young, bottled or from barrels. I'll go to Bordeaux and come back with tasting notes and know the 53 wines that are in barrels," he says.
"You learn about the process, the terrain, the land. You have a better understanding of it, build relationships and get an edge," Adler says, adding that traveling has allowed the store to stock a wine first that later became wildly popular with the general public.
"We fill a lot of special requests. If I don't carry a product I can get it, and we can sell it at a competitive price. If it is available, the rule of thumb is to try to get it within 24 hours," he says.
"If three or four people ask for a particular wine, that might be enough for me to put the wine on the shelf. Four or five people can make a product if they are faithful to the product," he says.
Also giving Adler an edge is that he and his associates taste every wine that Laurenzo's sells -- some 5,000 to 7,000 wines a year. This way they can be more attuned to the trends and know which products to recommend to customers.
After tasting the wines, Adler writes up tasting notes that profile each product. Tasting notes are mailed to some 26,000 customers four or five times a year.
"We don't distribute the tasting notes in the store; we find direct mail has that personal touch," he says.
Laurenzo's also uses in-store tastings to build wine sales. Many of the tastings are done in the Cotillion catering hall across the parking lot, which Laurenzo's owns. This gives the store the ability to do a lot of tastings. Unlike Laurenzo's, most supermarkets don't have the space to do tastings on a large scale.
Often the tastings are paired with foods prepared in the store's own kitchens, resulting in a sort of mini food festival, which has proven to be popular with shoppers.