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The Birth of Promoboxx: Seven Big Lessons I Learned in my Family’s Package Store

When I first presented the idea of Promoboxx to investors, I pitched the business from a place of logic. I didn’t give Promoboxx a story, a reason for being, a soul, and I struggled to gain traction. My thinking was that if the logic of the model made sense, people would invest. But there was always a story there, and I just needed to rediscover it.

Cold River Package, my family business, had always influenced my direction of Promoboxx, but I was embarrassed by the humble little store and didn’t want to make it all about me and not my co-founders. This was my story and not “our” story. Despite this, and because we were running out of money, I decided to get authentic and to start to tell the Cold River story. Like a switch had been turned on, people started to understand Promoboxx and decide to invest, and I learned my first Promoboxx lesson, #1: be authentic.

The Story

When I was in high school my parents decided to open a package store called Cold River Package. A package store (or “packie,” for those within New England), is an independent beer/wine/liquor store. Having a family package store not only made me popular in high school and college, it gave me a street degree in retail marketing. More importantly, it gave me direct view into how big brands supported local retailers. Those insights would later serve as inspiration for Promoboxx.

A “Blight on the Community”

When my mom took a job teaching nursing at UMass Amherst, we moved to a tiny hill town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts called Charlemont. Each day on her way to work, my mom would drive past a dilapidated, closed-up liquor store called Village Package.

Growing sick of looking at it, my mother tracked down the widow of the man who once owned the store. In one of those moments when timing is everything, she was able to buy the store by simply covering the back tax bill on the place. It was a steal, but we were left with a rundown store. My dad, the COO to my CEO mom, had spent much of his career working for convenience and grocery retailers Tedeschi’s and then later, Stop & Shop grocery store. He knew his way around retail, but nobody in our family knew the liquor business.

Promoboxx lesson #2: People starting retail businesses need help.

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Village Package c. 1992

The Birth of Cold River Package

Every kid loves a lemonade stand, but when your parents ask for your help in launching a liquor store, it’s the ultimate. The first big question was what to do with it. Getting a package store license in any Massachusetts town is tough. But because the business was already a package store, the case could be made that we were simply reactivating an existing business. We made that case, and the town supported the renewal of the package store license.

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Our little store on the Deerfield river.

What to stock? My Mom, being a Nurse Practitioner, didn’t want a store that sold cigarettes. We quickly shot that down. Although nobody in my family smoked, we knew that cigarettes would be critical in getting people to come to the store.

Promoboxx lesson #3: What a retailer stocks is not always related to what’s good for the business.

Picking a name for the store was a bit more difficult. My parents wanted to call it Benchmarc Liquors, which was a mash-up of my name (Ben) and my brothers’ (Chris and Marc). Taking some influence from the local river system the store was on, I suggested Cold River Package, and the name stuck.

Promoboxx Lesson #4: Names have stories and logos that matter to retailers. 

The King of Retailer Support

When it comes to retailer support, there is no better player than Anheuser-Busch. Due to the company’s dominating products and supplier power, it is an absolute requirement to have A-B products in a liquor store.

But A-B never abuses this powers. Yes, A-B products had the lowest margins of any in the store (when we sold a 30-pack of Bud Light, the store actually lost money), but the company backed that up with amazing support.

The day before Cold River opened, A-B sent a small army of people to help load and stock the first delivery. They already had the dimensions of our cooler, a customized planogram for how to arrange products, and they were there to help implement it. After reserving a third of the cooler for their products, they helped organize our display of competitive products. We didn’t have expertise on cooler organization, so we took their suggestions, and they essentially just beat every other brand to the punch, day one. There is a reason Bud Light is the dominant beer in the United States, and it starts on the front lines with retailers.

Promoboxx lesson #5: Retailers support brands they like.

Notice dominant Budweiser in this typical cooler layout.

Transition of Ownership

As the store grew and became more successful, my parents backed away and allowed my two brothers to get more involved in day-to-day management. With this transition came a new approach to running the store. Instead of traditional local marketing, my brothers began to focus on new and emerging marketing mediums like email, our website, and the emerging channels of social marketing.

This kind of ownership change is not unique to Cold River Package, it’s a movement nationwide. As baby-boomers retire, we’re seeing the largest local retail transfer of ownership in the history of our country. Brands have to adapt to how they support retailers that are experiencing this change. For a marketer, the old way of doing things is never a good option. For retailer marketing, it’s absolutely essential that a brand adapt to the changes.

Promoboxx lesson #6: As ownership demographics change, so too must brand support systems.

A New Beginning for Cold River Package

As my parents backed away and my brothers moved on to other things, it was time for the store to go through another transition to newer, more focused owners. Early on when we launched the store, a friendly store in a neighboring town had helped us with some advice. That store was Ryan and Casey’s Liquors in Greenfield MA. So when it came time to look for good suitors for the store, it just made sense that the good folks at Ryan and Casey’s would be the best ones. The new ownership has brought fresh marketing energy. Plus, the owners have nearly finished the construction of a new facility, located behind our diminutive original store.

Promoboxx lesson #7: Brand engagement needs to survive as retail ownership changes.

new cold river package

New owners and a new store.

The Birth of Promoboxx’s Mission . . .

The way brands supported my parents’ store formed the philosophical underpinnings of Promoboxx. It is a philosophy that holds that retailers are to be supported, not taken advantage of. If you are a company that sells at retail, it means simply asking retailers to participate with you in marketing. If you do that, you’re showing level of respect that will strengthen the retail relationship – their retailship with you.

The Cold River Package store started small, but its lessons are currently being used by 29 brands across more than 9,000 independent retailers through Promoboxx. Thanks Mom and Dad for taking that risk so many years ago. Bonus Lesson: Learn from your parents.