Back in the fall of 2015, a lot of people got their hopes up about a drink-while-you-shop concept at Target. Many people were picturing themselves walking down each aisle—shopping for candles, magazines, bedding, granola bars, you name it—with a glass of merlot in one hand while steering their shopping cart of dreams with the other.
In theory, it sounded like a feasible option that customers might be interested in. Several media outlets reported that one store in Chicago would be piloting the program to gauge interest. Why not? Whole Foods Market and other grocery chains have toyed with the idea, with varying degrees of success.
The problem is, that’s not really what the Minneapolis-based retail giant had planned. At all.
See, Starbucks separately rolled out its Evenings Programs in 2010. This gave Starbucks-goers the option of drinking a beer to relax after work for those who prefer a refreshing brew to a caffeinated frappuccino at 8 pm. The Seattle-based coffee giant, which has become a staple in Target stores across the country, had this alcohol-selling program in place in hundreds of locations, including Target’s much discussed Streeterville store in Chicago that was “serving alcohol to shoppers.”
Yes, it was serving beer and wine to Starbucks/Target guests, but to drink the wine, customers had to stay in the coffee shop area. Or as one Target employee at the Streeterville location put it: “You were never allowed just to roam the store with alcohol. You could only drink it in the Starbucks.”
Past tense because, well, in January, Starbucks announced it was ditching its Evenings Programs in more than 400 locations, including, you guessed it, the Chicago Target store of interest.
Now, why did people think there was a drink-while-you-shop concept coming to Target stores? Primarily because Target applied for a liquor license in Chicago, media outlets reported it, and Target didn’t exactly dispute it. At least not at the time.
“I can’t speak to why there were so many misreports about the one Starbucks Evenings program at the Streeterville Target store,” said Target spokeswoman Kristy Welker in an email last month. “This was the first time that Target offered this menu option at one of our stores, so that may have been why it was reported on incorrectly.”
Was Target secretly considering a drink-while-you-shop idea all along? The company denies it was ever in the works, but retail analysts and legal experts say if Target was plotting to serve beverages by the glass, there would be a lot of hurdles to overcome.
The concept has worked for chains like Midwest grocer Mariano’s and Whole Foods. But Target? Retail analyst Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet isn’t convinced it would take off.
“Target has no ambiance in its stores and is relatively unemotional. When you walk into Whole Foods, you’re greeted with a smell of the earth; you’ve got a fresh meat and fish counter. [Serving wine or alcohol] is a natural complement to that experience,” Stephens says. “For Target to replicate that would be sort of grasping at straws.”
Then there are the legal liabilities, says Michele Stumpe, a partner at Taylor English Duma in Atlanta. Alcohol laws vary from state to state. “The differences are pretty vast, and it can be difficult for a multi-unit chain like Target to manage the inconsistencies,” she says. “In some jurisdictions, the penalty for a violation might result in a suspension of the alcohol license for the entire store and the risk just isn’t worth the reward.”
That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. Whole Foods and Mariano’s have seemingly pulled it off. Mariano’s sells alcohol in 34 of its 40 grocery locations, and 25 of those stores allow customers to walk freely with their beverage in hand. (Nine locations are restricted to the cafe areas).
Mariano’s Director of Strategic Brand Development, Amanda Puck says customers like the idea so much the grocery chain intends to expand the offerings to more stores in the future. She describes Mariano’s as “a comfortable neighborhood place” that works well for customers looking to walk the aisles with a drink in hand.
“It makes the errand of grocery shopping an event—something to look forward to,” she says. “It also serves as an opportunity to try specialty cocktails and different wines by the glass, as well as local beers.”
No question adding food and drink concepts to traditional retail stores is something being tested by many. Nordstrom has coffee shops, bars, and cafes in 200 stores, while Ralph Lauren recently opened its fourth in-store eatery.
Meanwhile, Starbucks announced in February it started selling ice cream in more than 100 stores.
So if shoppers can’t drink while they browse at Target, maybe they’ll have to settle for an affogato.