Feature Stories

Recent Grad Sells Wine Online: $15 million dollars worth

Saurabh Abrol

When he was a boy, Saurabh Abrol (2002) worked in his father’s liquor store.  But when he wasn’t at the store, and wasn’t in school, he liked to play with his computer. He’d take it apart and probe around inside, trying to discern how the computer worked.  He was curious, and he was smitten by computers.  Later, as a senior in high school, he knew he wanted to study computer science in college.  So he hunted around for a university with the best computer science department.  He chose NJIT.

Abrol graduated from NJIT in 2002 with a degree in computer science.  But instead of looking for a job as a programmer for a major technology firm, he went back to work for his father’s liquor store.  Using the technical skills he acquired at NJIT, though, it didn’t take him long before he transformed the liquor store into an online behemoth.     

He started an online liquor site -- www.WineChateau.com -- that far exceeded his humble expectations.  Founded four years ago, the site has served more than 2 million customers.  It handles 30-40 phone orders and hundreds of online inquiries a day. The business stocks 15,000 different wines and liquors and employs 22 people. Last year, www.WineChateau.com’s online sales generated $5.8 million, says Abrol, whose title is president and chief executive officer.  He expects revenue this year to hit $15 million.   

Abrol is happily absorbed with the family business.  His father now owns three liquor stores – in Metuchen, South River and South Orange -- while he concentrates on WineChateau.com, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the total sales at the family business.  Wine is by far the big online attraction, accounting for 72 percent of WineChateau.com’s business. 

In this interview, Abrol, talks about what it was like to start the business and what it’s like now, at such a young age -- he’s only 29 -- to run such a burgeoning business. 


Was it your idea to start WineChateau.com?
It was a collaborative effort between my father and me. We capitalized on timing; the Internet was taking off as a shopping platform and the popularity and consumption of wine were on the rise. So with the backing of my wife and my father, we went for it. 

How did your Computer Science degree help you develop the e-commerce component to your father’s retail stores?
Initially, it helped me understand what was possible and prepared me to address issues like design, user interface, merchandise selection and questions about how the store should operate. Then when we started building the store, I used my computer science background to develop the back-end and the front-end of the website, which put me in close touch with customers and their behaviors and kept my overhead low.

What skills did you learn at NJIT that help now manage the site? It’s now a major website, so what is your role in the website/ business?
NJIT helped me learn the practical skills like database structuring, C++, website design, HTML, and other programming languages and introduced me to a variety of people from different backgrounds. It also helped me understand the need to take a long macro view -- the 30,000-foot view -- of business. In terms of my management skills, I’m learning on the job and I keep working on them everyday. But I’m far from being an expert manager, though I have moved away from day-to-day micro managing our employees (developers) and entrust a senior programmer to manage the back-end efforts done by our junior employees.  My role is to expand our business by coming up with different marketing ideas, improving our shopping cart functionality, developing business deals with suppliers and ultimately making the final decisions.

Did you have a favorite class at NJIT?
I enjoyed my HTML & Website Design class, where I felt comfortable and really, really enjoyed coming to class. Believe it or not, the class project was for each student to make a website about him or herself.  I chose to create a website design company, which in turn led me to develop www.WineChateau.com.

Were you in the Honors College at NJIT?
I was far from being in the Honors College. Many of my friends were way smarter than me and got far better grades. I fell short in my studies. I was able, however, to succeed when after graduating I was thrown into the real world, when I knew the time had come to work as hard as I possibly could. So I guess you could say that there’s hope for those who day dream in class. 

When you were a senior in high school, why did you pick NJIT? And why'd you major in computer science?
I got my first computer when I was 11 – this was before the days of Windows 3.0 -- from my uncle.  After a while, I started to disassemble the entire thing and started probing around to see what made it work. My love for computers drove me to find a college with a great computer science program. I felt NJIT was, and still is, the best overall choice for a computer science junky. It’s a great campus; it has great professors; and it’s much cheaper than other higher-end colleges.

What is it about WineChateau.com that makes it profitable?
Convenience, variety, price and service give Winechateau.com a competitive edge. We strive to offer the best selection of wines at the best prices and offer our customers the best deals and the best advice we can. It’s a competitive market and there are many great wine resources on the web.  But we've begun to carve out a niche and build lasting relationships with more than 2 million customers in 46 states.

You majored in computer science but you are now running a good-sized business. Did you take any management classes at NJIT? 
I learned how to manage employees and to run a business by doing it – not by studying it in a classroom. My father taught me the fundamentals of business and, by example, he showed me that working hard, focusing on a goal, attending to detail and having respect for employees and customers are the crucial ingredients for business success.  

Your father immigrated to America from India and didn’t have a chance to attend college. So he opened a liquor store.  But his work allowed you to attend college, and now you two are partners in a family business.  Can you comment on that?
I am the direct beneficiary of my Dad’s blood, sweat and tears. It is an awesome gift he gave me and I have an equally awesome responsibility to use my NJIT education to its best effect.

Do you have any advice for current college students who are interested in e commerce and website development?
Pay much more attention than I did. Focus on your long term goals and use your coursework to prepare yourself and to build the skills you’ll need to accomplish your dreams.  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)