Since 1892, The Wigs Cellar has been Melbourne's premium liquor boutique dedicated to providing a superior selection of fine wine, spirits, and beer, along with expert advice.
Ross Smith has been the owner and manager for the last 20 years, boasting one of the largest collections of international whisky, gin, rum, tequila, mezcal, and exotic liqueurs, as well as a select range of premium Australian-made wines, whiskies, and spirits.
A lifelong passion
Ross explains that entering the bottle shop business just came naturally, sharing, “I accompanied my father to various wineries when I was young ... so I’ve been around the business quite a long time.”
He continues, “I worked in vineyards and wineries. ... I went off and did a grape-growing course ... during which time I was able to get formal qualifications, meet more people, and get more connected—which totally fuelled the passion.”
At one point in his journey toward becoming a business owner, Ross contemplated buying a vineyard.
He says, “But I looked at the trouble and the downsides that come with owning a vineyard. You really have to spend a few months of the worst weather ... pruning it when it's cold and wet. ... Once you've done that a few weeks in, you think, ‘Yeah, I don't want to really do this forever.’”
The upside of a bottle shop
Then the opportunity to buy The Wigs Cellar presented itself, and Ross took it, pointing out that his journey towards ownership “went from being a passion to an obsession to a business.”
When Ross first purchased Wigs, he had a bit of work to do, sharing, “It'd been a successful business that I’d known of at the time, but ... it was getting pretty run-down ... so we got to breathe some new life into it.”
Ross didn’t embark on this new investment blind, stating, “I looked at it as a long-term thing. I started with a five-year plan in my head. ... The changes I was going to make were going to be incremental.”
Ross shares that he’s seen an annual growth of 15% since starting out. His approach was to focus on top-selling products and premium items that no one else supplied. He explains, “We went from providing a more generic base of product to being more of a speciality market.”
A competitive market
In order to stay relevant in the competitive market of the Australian wine and spirits industry, Ross has taken a very strategic approach to the products he offers his clientele. “We focus on selling the good stuff that’s not going to go into the larger chains.”
“We do still carry 20% of the more popular stuff everyone wants too; however, the other 80% is the product you’re not going to be able to easily find elsewhere,” he shares.
“The original angle,” Ross continues, “was to be that kind of destination where people say, ‘Oh, I’m not sure where I can find that special edition of whisky. ... Wigs might have it; I better go there.’”
With a small staff of about six people, Ross strives to obtain employees who have a passion to learn about the product and share that knowledge with their customers.
One main rule he strongly promotes is not to recommend products based on price. He explains, “We buy based on quality, so I can put my hand out to my customers and say with confidence, ‘This is well-made.’”
In addition, he stresses the importance of providing strong customer service and exceeding expectations not just by offering superior products but also by building a relationship with each individual that walks through the door.
“Talk to the customer. Listen to the customer. So much gets lost in this digital world that’s actually a two-way direction. And that's real. You have to make it real,” says Ross.
When it comes to the marketing strategy Ross has implemented, he has experienced the most success with the use of social media, specifically Facebook.
“We used to run some newspaper ads, but then we started funnelling all of that into social media to see which generated the best return based on investment, and social media won,” he states.
In addition, he promotes specific items throughout the week and month. For example, “What’s New Wednesdays” highlights new inventory and offers customers the opportunity to visit and learn about up-and-coming products in the industry.
Ross shares that it’s a great way to get people in the door and adds, “When you highlight a certain product for the day or week, both in the store and on social media, you can also tag the producers of that product, and the reach goes even further.”
Ross is passionate about what he does and enjoys being in control of his own destiny, stating, “I love what I do!”