Pennsylvania Grocers Fight for a Share of Alcohol Sales

By Lorrie Baumann

Pennsylvania grocers and convenience stores are fighting for privatization of the state’s alcohol sales under a proposal that has passed the state House. The proposal to privatize alcohol sales has the support of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett but faces opposition from Democrats in the state Senate.

Pennsylvania has some of the nation’s strictest controls on liquor sales. Under current law, sales of packaged spirits are restricted to liquor stores controlled by the Pennsylvania liquor control board and to delis and restaurants that serve food as well. Wines are also sold in winery shops, and beer may only be purchased from a restaurant, bar, licensed beer store, or distributor. Beverage distributors may be licensed to sell beer and malt liquor, but not wine or hard liquor. Utah is the only other state in the country with such a state monopoly on liquor sales.

Supermarkets are fighting for a share of that business, and the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which represents them, is supporting a bill just passed by the Pennsylvania House that would expand liquor sales in the state from the state-controlled stores into the hands of privately-owned merchants. Under the bill being considered now by the Pennsylvania Senate, the state stores would be gradually phased out as new licensees began selling more of the liquor sold in each county.

The state’s existing beer distributors would have first crack at the new liquor licenses. After a year, new entrepreneurs would have a chance to purchase liquor licenses. The bill would also give grocery stores that have a restaurant license the ability to sell beer and wine.

The PFMA argues that the few supermarkets that already have licenses to sell alcohol in restaurants or delis attached to their stores are doing an exemplary job of making sure that alcohol isn’t getting into the hands of minors, and that they provide safe, clean and convenient places for adults to purchase alcoholic beverages. “These companies offer visually appealing displays, competitive prices and well-trained associates to assist shoppers,” said David McCorkle, PFMA president and CEO.

The association recently polled members who currently have a license to sell alcohol in Pennsylvania and found those companies have policies in place to ensure the lawful sale of adult beverages. Procedures followed by these stores include the following:

  • Cashiers and other store personnel receive training through the Responsible Alcohol Management Program (RAMP), a training program created by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to help licensees and their employees sell alcohol responsibly. This training gives store associates knowledge on spotting fake ID’s and acceptable forms of identification; spotting and dealing with intoxicated customers, and all aspects of the Pennsylvania liquor code.
  • Many stores have a 100 percent age verification policy, so that they card every person who wants to make an adult beverage purchase.
  • Identification is visually inspected and scanned through the register to verify the buyer’s age.
  • Store cafés and restaurants are under video surveillance.

Opponents of expanded liquor sales argue that the expansion of liquor sales into new venues will create more opportunities for underage consumption resulting from thefts of alcohol products from poorly monitored retail stores. They cite a National Institutes of Health study showing that four underage participants from a sample group of 47 had stolen alcohol and that about a dozen of the 47 study participants knew that their friends had stolen alcohol on some occasion. The study suggests that, “Theft of alcohol from commercial sources may be reduced by examining the weaknesses of existing theft prevention practices, and revising store policies.”

“Theft for these products is not any more prevalent than any other product in the stores,” McCorkle said. “Supermarket and convenience stores are very familiar with selling age-restricted products. They regularly sell them in other states where they comply with the law and shoppers enjoy the convenience of purchasing adult beverages along with their groceries.”

Privatization of liquor sales could raise $800 million in new tax revenues for the state, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The governor wants to direct that money to public schools for early-childhood education, school safety, individual learning, and science, technology, engineering, and math programs. The bill is opposed by the union that represents the state liquor store clerks.

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