Creating a Competitive Advantage

Capitalize on Your Strengths

How do you as a business owner or operator distinguish your business from the competition? Why should potential customers visit your shop over that of the competition?

The most common ways to create a competitive advantage in Alberta’s liquor environment include building a loyal customer base, and offering a selection that resonates with your clientele – whether they are local customers, or customers that seek you out based on your selection or strengths (a destination store). Offering competitive pricing, consumer events or special services, and having quality staff can also give you an edge over other liquor retailers.


Quite simply, having great staff is a huge benefit to any business. In the liquor business, employing knowledgeable, passionate staff who know the products – and can sell them – is much better than having the least experienced, “wage earner” who can only be counted on to show up. Trained or certified sommeliers and cicerones have at least a basic understanding of most product types and global production regions, and can hand-sell tricky products, understand the customer’s needs, and select the best products for those needs. At the same time, having a person on hand who is friendly and passionate about providing a positive customer experience can be just as valuable.


Hosting special tastings and events can provide an effective way to get customers interested in your selection and attract new customers to your store. Some stores have additional space perfect for accommodating events – from sit-down, educational seminars to stand up, or mingling-style events where people can network or learn a bit about a style of product in an informal setting. It could even be as simple as having a few products open for sampling during a specified period, such as a Thursday evening or Saturday afternoon.

Selection and Pricing

In the retail liquor environment here in Alberta, we are anything but stuck in terms of who is competitiveAdvantage3supplying you. With around 20,000 different products available, retailers have a virtually infinite choice to customize which products feature on your shelves. If you want to have the largest selection of French wines, organic wines, whisky or craft beer, you can.

Marcia Hamm is the manager of Hicks Fine Wines in St. Albert. The store only opened its doors in the fall of 2014, and in a short time has done well carving out a niche in the market. They’ve focused slightly more on Italian wines, but also stock a complete range of products. As Hamm puts it, “We have plenty of unique and weird wines – geeky wines”, offering something unique to consumers. In the store, they are opposed to the use of shelf-talkers, preferring to stock wines that are “hand sells” with knowledgeable employees that have tried the wines, and are confident recommending them. In-store tastings are a common occurrence at Hicks, from formal guided tasting events to simply just having an importer on hand pouring some wine for visitors to the shop.

We have plenty of unique and wierd wines – geeky wines, offering something unique to consumers.

Creating a Loyal Customer

It costs much more to attract a new customer than to retain one. Greeting your customers as they CompetitiveAdvantage-2walk through the door and thanking them for their business as they leave goes a long way. Be sure to let everyone know what’s new in the store, and reach out to your regulars through social media, emails, or newsletters. Recognize and personally address your regulars when they drop in, pointing them to products that might interest them, especially new ones. Ask them for feedback on what they like about your store as well as areas of improvement.

Spirits of Cranston is a small, family-run store in the south end of Calgary. Owned and operated by Roy and Irma Phinney, it is the epitome of a neighbourhood liquor store doing it right. Right from the get-go, it’s a store that focuses on customer service. Everyone who walks through the door is greeted and welcomed – often by name. Measuring about 1,200 square feet, it’s in the smaller range of shops, but it has a walk-in beer cooler, a wine chiller, and ample space for wines and spirits. When it opened in 2004, it was the only liquor store south of the 22X, and it serviced a number of newer communities in the south end of the city. These days, it faces stiffer competition from other stores, but it differentiates itself by offering a personalized experience and a number of added-value services, such as delivery service, special ordering opportunities, and even letting customers phone ahead to have a special wine chilled.

Added-value services include delivery service, special ordering opportunities, and even letting customers phone ahead to have a special wine chilled.

While it might be beyond the capabilities of the average store, some retailers create custom wine selections for their customers. Co-op Wine Spirits Beer runs a locker program that serves about 300 customers. First, clients meet with a sommelier from Co-op and submit a detailed profile regarding their wine preferences. Once a month, their locker – and yes, it’s a physical locker – is filled according to the subscriber’s budget and quantity requested. Wine notes, cellaring suggestions, and the like are provided, and the wines selected for the program are generally exclusive. Co-op’s locker program is nearing capacity, but it boasts a terrific retention rate – even in a tough economy.

While having the right location is important, most stores don’t have the option of picking up and moving across the street if the grass looks greener over there. Recognize and capitalize on your store’s strengths – the things that separate you from the competition. Provide an excellent shopping experience every time, converting new customers into loyal patrons, and maximize your competitive advantage.