Habits change, but his liquor sales up

When times get tough, some people still need a drink – though possibly one that costs less than it used to.

Or so it seems at Southern Spirits, a beer, wine and liquor emporium on U.S. 521 in Lancaster County, S.C., just south of booming Ballantyne.

The store's sales and profits have grown by double digits every year since it opened in 2002, president Don Podrebarac said. This year, that rate has slowed to about 5 percent.

That's largely because people have been trading down: Those who once bought premium Grey Goose vodka may now be buying Stolichnaya or Absolut; those who bought Stoli or Absolut may now be buying Smirnoff, and so forth.

“People are not going to stop drinking,” Podrebarac said, “but they're going to alter their drinking expenditures based on what they can afford.”

That's a big step, he said, because alcoholic products tend to boast strong brand loyalty. In many cases, he said, people are buying cheaper brands but greater quantities, because they're traveling less and entertaining at home more.

In addition, more customers are taking advantage of a store policy that allows them to bring back unused, unopened bottles for a full refund – say, if they buy too much for a party.

The prices the store pays for its products have gone up once or twice this year for nearly every item, compared with maybe one price jump a year per every three or four items, Podrebarac said. That's due to transportation costs and the exchange rate, he said.

Still, that didn't prevent customers from stopping by Thursday in advance of one of the store's busiest weekends of the year, buying items such as hot-selling sweet tea vodka. Continuing to emphasize service, Podrebarac said, will keep them coming back.

And with the 521 corridor among the fastest-growing in the region, he said he's expecting things to pick back up in 2009 – and he'll raise a glass to that. JEN ARONOFF