Buster's Has It For Memphis
by Elaine Abadie
Beverage Retailer, September 1997
Selection and customer
service are the two keys to success for Buster's Liquors & Wines, Memphis' largest liquor store and one of Tennessee's top stores in beverage sales. The family-owned and operated business has a diverse stock of more than 3,700 premium wines, 85 single malt Scotches, 40 vodkas, 50 tequilas 50 blended whiskeys, 20 rums and 60 cognacs and brandies.
"We stock virtually everything new that comes along," say R.M. Hammond III, Buster's proprietor. "That's our advertising motto: "If we don't have it, then you don't need it."
And Buster's definitely has "it." The shop's annual gross sales exceed 9 million. Not to shabby for a store that was started with a $55,000 loan secured by a handshake. Hammonds father, Romulus "Buster" Hammond Jr. opened the first Buster's in the 1950s. In 1964 Hammond joined the family business. His sons, Morgan and Josh, continue the family tradition.
Voted "Best Liquor and Wine Store" in Memphis by a local arts and entertainment newspaper for the past four years, this Deep South wine and spirits mecca attracts shoppers from a 250-mile radius in three states.
"This is just a big, old Delta town," says Mike Scruggs, store manager and wine expert. "So everybody comes to Memphis to buy their clothes, cars and they come to Busters to buy their wine."
Over the years, Buster's has made four additions, increasing the store's size from its original 1,500 square feet to 10,000 square feet. "Our location is the best thing that ever happened to us," Hammond says. "It's in the geographic center of the city, close to theUniversity of Memphis and two major thoroughfares."
ALL THINGS WET
Location isnt everything, however, "We've got a wide a variety of customers from all walks of life because we have virtually everything," he explains. "We carry everything in every price range. Depending on how well a product does, the bigger the portion of the store it gets. But virtually any new products that come along, we'll stock."
Besides wine, Buster's most popular products are single malt Scotches and the new specialty of designer vodkas. Hammond, who selects most of the merchandise, stays on top of the market by following new product trends. "If we realize that something new is coming along, we jump on bandwagon and make sure that we've got the product," Hammond says. "A lot of people don't like to put new product in their stores because it costs more money and they're not sure if it's going to go. But we take that chance because if it does go, we want to be known as the place that has it."
Selection and a pleasant atmosphere attract customers to Buster's. "Most stores aren't what I would call a destination point," he says. "Most stores are places where people just run in to pick up a bottle. But Buster's is a destination point because we have so many different brands and varieties. We've got people who come in here and get shopping carts and spend 35 or 45 minutes just walking through the store shopping because of our selection and our pleasant atmosphere. We play background music; customers don't really pay attention to it, but yet it's very comforting."
Buster's is a clean, well-lighted establishment with colorful bottles displayed in some of its many large plate glass windows. The large inventory impresses, yet it doesn't overwhelm. Order definitely reigns.
While displays decorate the store, they aren't the focus. "They're good to advertise new products," Hammond says. "Many people who come into shop already have an idea of what they're going to purchase, but they spend a lot of time walking around and looking at the different things. Displays do a good job in that respect." Both employee-designed and supplier-provided displays promote products. A glass case near the store entrance showcases photographs of Elvis, a brick once used to break one of the store's windows in a robbery attempt, a bottle of M*A*S*H beer and other souvenirs.
Buster's wine arrangement showcases the most expensive wines. More expensive bottles find homes in prime locations. In addition to wine on shelves, much of the wine is displayed in open boxes. "Open boxes of wine encourage people to shop," Scruggs says. "It's easier, plus you've got your inventory at hand. If someone asks for something, you don't have to look around in the back of the stop. It's like going to the market and having a box of oranges out there."
These wine displays are not the result of a lack of storage space because the store has 4,000 square feet of storage, 3,500 of it devoted to wine.
When Hammond first started the business, wines were just a small part of the business, wines were just a small part of the business, liquor was the major part, about 90 percent of the business. But now, wine sales account for 60 percent of the business.
And the pace of wine sales isn't slowing down. "One thing I can tell you about the wine market today is if you see something you like, you'd better buy it because it won't be there tomorrow," Scruggs says. "There's so much interest in wine and people are shopping all over the place now. If I'm selling $4,000 worth of wine to guys from Texas who I've never seen before, then there's something going on that we all need to pay attention to. The game is being played a lot faster."
Customer service is of supreme importance at Buster's. "To give service is key," Hammond says. "People in this day and time are more demanding. I like for someone to help me, instead of just pointing to a product. A lot of places seem to be just too busy to wait on the customer, and yet that's the reason they're in the business."
Thirty-five employees help sell the store's million-dollar inventory of wine and liquor. "The only thing you've got to sell that everybody else does not have is service," Scruggs says. "Pay attention to customers, be nice to them, cordial and remember them."
Hammond encourages his staff to learn about the products they sell. "They're urged to read different books about wine and to drink wine and find out about the tastes," Hammond says. "And then if they show an interest in wine or something else, we have tastings from time to time for the staff, because it's really difficult to read about something. You get a general idea when you read about something, but you really don't know the exact taste described unless you taste it yourself."
Employees attend tastings frequently. "Anytime somebody comes to town to do a wine tasting, we make sure that at least one representative from our store is there," Scruggs says. And although state law prohibits in-store wine tastings, Buster's employees conduct wine tastings in homes, businesses and restaurants.
"Have fun with the products so they'll mean more to you," says Stacey Horne, sales associate and the store's single malt Scotch and cognac authority. He listens and talks to customers to match the consumer with just the right beverage.
"First, I ask for their tastes," Horne says. "That's the magic. Do they prefer subtle or heavy tastes? It's their money, and you've got to match their taste."
"The mark of a good waiter is one whos got all the plates in the right order, he remembers your face and he also stands back and watches your eyes," Scruggs says. "When you have a question, he comes right up and takes care of you. It's the same thing with a wine clerk."
"It takes three years to train a wine clerk. The reason it takes three years is because it's not what you know, it's the experience that goes with it. You have to be able to sell wine without having what the person's looking for in stock. You've got to find out what they person's looking for in stock. You've got to find out what they've had in the past and what matches up with that because there's not an endless supply of 1993 Chardonnay. It runs out sooner or later. So, it's knowing what's been before and how the tastes fit."
"All 35 people who work here have carte blanche to order anything they think they can sell, anything that they have confidence in," Scruggs explains. "I trust them and their taste buds. I don't always agree with them, but I do trust them. So, they can buy what they want to buy and we put products on the floor that we have confidence in."
Even with Buster's open 15 hours a day, 6 days a week, Hammond isn't tired of the liquor and wine biz yet. "We've been around for 40 years and we plan on being around for at least another 35."
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