The Canberra Times

Canberra's Local Liquor celebrates milestone with eyes to the future

Strength in numbers: John Krnc, one of the founding members of Local Liquor, outside his Lyneham store.

This is branded content for Independent Liquor Retailers.

Twenty years ago a group of canny Canberran business owners hatched a plan to help support and grow independent liquor businesses.

With increasing competition from the big corporate liquor retailers, small locally-owned bottlos were facing the challenge of how to remain profitable in a fast-changing marketplace.

Thirty-one stores each put in capital and the business Local Liquor was born with a vision to use the combined might of the members so businesses could survive and thrive, continue to serve their loyal local customers, and support their communities.

This month, as Local Liquor - which operates under the company name Independent Liquor Retailers (ILR) - celebrates it's 20th anniversary, it's now 430 members strong across the ACT, NSW and Queensland and is one of the fastest growing member-based liquor retailers in Australia.

As well as the inaugural Local Liquor banner, the company now encompasses other brands including Countrywide Liquor, Liquor Boss and Liquor & Co.

"It started with a group of Canberra store owners who wanted to work together to form a promotional program, be able to talk to suppliers, get better pricing and be more competitive," said ILR general manager Corey Leeson, who joined the company ten years ago.

"At the time, there were legislative changes happening to make it easier to get hold of liquor licenses in the ACT to create competition and these businesses needed to find a way to compete against the bigger guys coming into the market."

Canberra's Local Liquor celebrates milestone with eyes to the future

One of those founding members was John Krnc, who's been in the liquor retailing business for more than 30 years and continues to operate three Local Liquor outlets, in Lyneham, Queanbeyan, and Harden. He's now the chairman of ILR.

Mr Krnc said he's very proud of what the organisation has been able to achieve in helping independents retain and grow their share of the retail liquor market, particularly in the ACT.

"It was literally a few of us having a coffee together and instigating this. It's growth has shown how valuable it's been for the independent sector," he said.

"We could see the way the market was going and that we were going to be disadvantaged, but we could also see the opportunities by unifying and having strength in numbers."

While Australian liquor trends have changed significantly over the last 20 years, the goals the company launched with have remained the same - to provide competitive pricing, a good range of products and outstanding personal service, all while supporting the local communities they are part of.

"One of the great things about these businesses is that they're locally-owned and managed and are a big part of their communities," said Mr Leeson. "Local Liquor store owners constantly donate to, and sponsor, local organisations.

"The money spent with these businesses is reinvested into local communities, not funding shareholder dividends or paying CEO bonuses. These are local people servicing their local areas."

In an industry that has seen major shifts in Australian drinking habits and product innovation, an important part of ILR's role has been helping the businesses meet customers' changing demands.

"It has changed astronomically," said Mr Krnc. "If someone had told me a few years ago that every second person would be drinking gin, I would have laughed. But these days you have all these beautiful gins being produced locally, and people are loving cocktails.

"The biggest change has been that people are interested in better quality - they are drinking less but buying better quality.

"And there's been the rise of craft beers - we're so lucky to have all these great local Canberran beers like Capital Beer and BentSpoke in our backyard and consumers are very passionate about supporting them."

Championing locals: BentSpoke co-founders Tracy Margrain and Richard Watkins toast their success after being named Australia's favourite craft beer in January. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Championing local regional products is something ILR plans to focus on even more in the future, said Mr Leeson.

"We've been early adopters of offering our customers these new and local products through our network of stores - with companies like BentSpoke, Capital Brewing, Nick O'Leary Wines, Underground Spirits and Collector Wines," he said.

"Because our stores are independent they can easily add products, support local producers, tailor their range to their unique market, and offer something extra to our customers."

Mr Leeson said a positive side of COVID-19 for ILR members was that more people had discovered the advantages of their local liquor retailers.

"Over the last couple of years the market has really shifted," he said. "People have had to stay closer to home and that's where our members are - we're convenience-focused, we're just around the corner.

"People are discovering we're competitive on price and, while we don't have the huge range of some of those big retailers, we're careful to make sure we have a very good range.

"One of the things separating us from the bigger retailers is that local people in the shop know their customers well and work with suppliers to ensure they have the products their customers want - our service delivery is key."

Find the closest Local Liquor store in your neighbourhood here.

This is branded content for Independent Liquor Retailers.