'Category killer' is Herbert Haft's way with wine


January 30, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Wine is one of the last bastions of old-fashioned retailing. In some ways that's good. In most it's awful.

The good part is that a well-run liquor store that specializes in wine can be a place of great personality -- "where everybody knows your name," as the song goes. The owners take a personal interest in customers, make good recommendations and even call customers when an item of interest comes in.

The problem is that these stores are rare, especially in Maryland. Out of hundreds of liquor outlets in the state, maybe two dozen offer superior selection and service. The typical liquor store is a mere cubbyhole with an unimaginative wine selection, a cluttered display and help who barely know a zinfandel from a zinnia.

And the prices are too high. Compared with the Washington and New York markets, consumers of fine wines typically pay a premium of 10 to 15 percent for buying in the Baltimore area, even before taxes are taken into account. That's why all that tax revenue is slipping over state lines, Mr. Comptroller.

The market is badly in need of a shaking up, and Herbert Haft may be just the man to do it. He has a retailing concept called Total Beverage, and Maryland is on his mind.

Mr. Haft, a colorful character known for his snowy white pompadour and bitter family feud, is one of the nation's most experienced and aggressive discount retailers. He's been widely reviled as a greenmailer and a ruthless old scoundrel, but no one can say he doesn't know how to run a store.

Starting with a pharmacy in Washington, he built a chain called Dart Drugs, sold it and went on to create Crown Books and Trak Auto.

Two years ago, he launched Total Beverage in Northern Virginia. Beginning with a single store in Chantilly, he has since added locations in Alexandria and Manassas. Now he's casting his eyes on the other side of the Potomac.

"Eventually, we'll be in Maryland," Mr. Haft says in an interview. "We're being offered locations. We're looking." He won't specify exactly where, but the word on the street is that Laurel, with its access to both the Washington and Baltimore markets, is a good bet.

Total Beverage brings the "category killer" approach to the wine and beer business. Much like a Home Depot or a Computer City, it seeks to overwhelm the consumer with the breadth of its selection and the competitiveness of its prices.

Done poorly, this idea could be truly depressing. Wine is not just a commodity. It shouldn't be sold like widgets.

A visit to the Alexandria store suggests Mr. Haft has done just fine. He has hired extremely knowledgeable wine professionals, some of them lured away from Maryland stores. To run the show he brought in Allen Krasner, a veteran wholesaler who brought new life to the wine department at Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore when he worked there.

Total is not your typical liquor store.

Imagine a store the size of a large supermarket, stocked with about 4,500 wines and 500 beers -- no hard stuff -- at prices about 20 percent over wholesale, compared with 40 to 55 percent in most Maryland stores. Instead of clutter, there are attractive displays of special offers ranging from quite drinkable $4 wines to Dom Perignon for $60, compared with $90 at the typical retail outlet.

Already some of the state's existing retailers are trying to find a way to keep Mr. Haft out of Maryland. Stanley Bliden, owner of Midway Liquors, says he's prepared to go to Annapolis to argue that Total should not get a Maryland license.

"I would fight 'em, and hopefully most other retailers in Maryland would too," says Mr. Bliden.

Mr. Haft acknowledges that he might face some roadblocks. "This is the only field where the people in it are still trying to create monopolies, price-fixing and price-gouging," he says.

Retailers who are inclined to prevent Mr. Haft from doing business here would be well advised to hire a good antitrust lawyer. Mr. Haft has shown in the past that he's willing to sue the pants off anyone who tries to stand between him and the customer. He's been all the way to the Supreme Court, and when he got there he won.

Short of a lawsuit, Maryland could prove a tough nut for Mr. Haft to crack. The state's retailers have a powerful lobby in Annapolis and a raft of friends in the General Assembly who will likely climb aboard an effort to exclude Total. It's funny how often conservative business people become boosters of Big Government when they want toward off a competitor.

The retailers do have one valid point. As Mr. Bliden notes, chain ownership is banned in Maryland. Because of that, Total absolutely should be restricted to one license -- that is, until the anti-consumer chain ban can be repealed. Talented retailers like Mr. Bliden and Mr. Haft should not be restricted to owning one store.

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