Beverages Vying For Shelf Space In Grocery Stores

If it seems to you that wine is taking up a giant share of the beverage space in grocery stores these days, you're not mistaken.

Wine gets all that space - and in prominent locations in the store - even though soft drinks and beer sell more by volume. Why? The answer lies in a jugful of things, from marketing psychology to profit margins to behind-the-scenes space battles that one insider describes as "brutal."

One can confirm wine's space dominance by two methods. First, from statistics shared by many store managers and beverage industry folks. Then there's the nonscientific approach - me with a tape measure wandering through local stores.

If you want to attract stares in a grocery store, whip out your tape measure and start pacing off shelves. I had the permission of the managers, of course, but the employees figured I was some sort of spy. By the time I tired of explaining my reasons, I figured that space allotted to beverages, at the several stores I visited, went something like this: wine, about 55 percent (often considerably more); soft drinks, 25 percent; and beer, 20 percent.

It varied from store to store, of course, and the further I strayed from Seattle the higher the percentages were of space allotted to beer and soft drinks. Demographics obviously play an important role here. One also must remember that Washington is host to a thriving wine industry - more than 100 wineries - and is rated high in per capita wine consumption, often twice that of the national average (about 2.3 gallons).

Talking to the folks who call the shots in the chain stores, along with wine and beer salesmen, only confirmed what I had observed with my trusty tape measure. But this time I got exact figures.

"Generally speaking," says Mark Tobin, the alcoholic beverage merchandising manager for Safeway Stores, "you will find more space allotted to wine than beer. Soft drinks fall somewhere in between."

Taking the University Village Safeway ( one of the chain's superstores at 35,000 square feet), Tobin revealed some fascinating figures. That store contains 177 feet of shelf space for beer, 300 for soda pop and 845 feet for wine.

Yet beer sells twice and sometimes three times as much volume as wine, even though there are far fewer brands of beer than wine. Not only that, soft drinks, even with their smaller shelf space, are the No. 1 selling beverage all across the U.S. And they continue to grow - by more than 100 percent in the past decade.

So how can a store justify the enormous space allotted to wine?

"Frankly," Tobin says, "wine has a higher margin of profit than other beverages, so it pays for its space. Also, we're an extraordinarily sophisticated market here. We probably have wines available here that you can't find in other parts of the country. We have to offer a complete selection for our clientele."

Of course, the University Village store is exceptional in its size and location. But it's far from alone when it comes to wine. Down on the shores of Lake Union is a little neighborhood grocery called Pete's Super Market. Inside it's fairly bursting with wine. It's also filled with customers from all over town who know wine and good wine prices. George Kingen, the owner, figures that wines take up a full 25 percent of the 5,000-square-foot store - possibly the highest percentage in town. In addition, Kingen just opened a new Eastside branch of 7,000 square feet that will be entirely devoted to wine, beer and soft drinks.

Other examples include Larry's Market (five in the Seattle area), where wine seems to be stacked to the ceiling; and QFC stores (27 in King County), which industry observers feel is taking the lead these days in wine display. The Thriftway store on Queen Anne Hill sells so much wine that the beverage accounts for a good 7 percent of its business. Beer is perhaps half of that, the store's manager says.

You aren't imagining that wine seems to be in a much more obvious position in stores these days.

"Wine is an impulse item," says Bob Broderick, wine service manager for Associated Grocers. "It used to be stashed in the back. Now, if you bury it, you don't sell it."

But the story of how wine, beer and soft drinks vie for shelf space in the supermarket is an intriguing one.

In the case of wine, "it's really brutal," said one wine distributor, describing the competition for (wine) shelf space. "I've seen fisticuffs nearly break out."

The decision on space allotments is based pretty much on customer demand. But not always. The clout of some larger distributors figures in.

And then there's the question of buying shelf space. Wine and beer distributors grumble - off the record - about the soft drink industry being legally permitted to buy shelf space, in addition to refrigeration units and special displays. The law doesn't permit wine and beer companies to do this.

Whether space buying actually occurs here depends on whom you ask. The soft drink industry folks say it's practiced in other parts of the country, but not here. Buddy Rogers, vice president of public affairs for Coca-Cola in Los Angeles, says, "It varies from place to place, but generally is not done in the Northwest. We do participate financially in promotional-type things (like special displays and advertising) in the stores."

"The stores would like to see it (the selling of shelf space) happen," says Scott Byhre, market manager for Alpac Corp. of Seattle, largest of the soft drink firms in the Northwest. "But we don't pay for anything other than advertising and displays."

Wine and bers aren't convinced. The issue rankles many who covet that precious shelf space for their own products . Some wine industry folks say it's not unusual for a fee to be $500 to $900 a month for shelf display. Store officials won't discuss it.

Most industry folks figure that little new store space is being created these days. It's more a matter of juggling and trading. How all this comes about brings up the dreaded subject of something called a "reset" - a procedure, as the name suggests, of redoing wine shelves. It's a longstanding tradition here that, store managers admit, saves them all the trouble of redoing shelves. It's also a time when tempers sometimes flare among wine salesmen and charges are made of influence and pressure.

Daily restocking, of course, is done by the store's staff. But a reset, (a complete redistribution of the wine displayed) could take days if done "in house." A reset is at the store manager's discretion and it might happen twice a year. It usually begins at 6 in the morning. That's when all the wine salesmen arrive and restock the shelves. It isn't quite a free-for-all, however, because some sort of agreement or schematic scale has been worked out in advance. But it can end in considerable disagreement as well.

"I hate them," says a local wine distributor. "They're unfair, too, because the larger distributors really push us around. Also, the stores are really getting something done for them that they should be doing themselves. Why should we restock their shelves?"

Tobin denies that certain distributors get pushed around and that others have undue influence.

"Times have changed," he says. "In the age of computers, stores are much more sophisticated now about what sells and what doesn't. We used to rely on the distributors. Many have lost that influence."

Whatever, the game of shelf space changes almost daily. Apparently the only way to keep up is to bring your tape measure along to the store with you. But expect a lot of stares. Wine by Tom Stockley appears Wednesday in the Food section of The Times.