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Voters may decide fate of grocery store wine sales

Grocery store chains in Colorado again this year are expected to ask voters to be allowed to sell full-strength beer, wine and other spirits, something currently reserved under state law for liquor stores.

Petitions being circulated spout blather like “produce jobs,” “increase consumer choices,” “lower prices” and “economic development.” Sounds good on the surface but like most arguments, this one isn’t black and white.

From a liquor-store owner’s view, a grocery store selling wine or booze means unwanted competition in an already tight market.

“There’s just no possibility I can go out there and compete with grocery stores,” said Kim Schottleutner, chair of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association and owner of DTC Wine and Spirits in Greenwood Village, in an interview with Channel 7 TV in Denver.

Industry watchers say if grocery stores get beer, wine and spirits, many of the state’s small liquor stores, already operating on a tight margin, may disappear, along with the jobs they provide and taxes they pay.

“You will affect jobs. You will affect businesses,” said Schottleutner.  “That’s something that the petitions aren’t telling anybody.”

Keep Colorado Local, formed by the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association and the Colorado Brewers’ Guild, says the state risks losing nearly 1,600 independent liquor stores, 287 craft breweries, 135 wineries and 46 distilleries.

Fewer competitors won’t mean lower prices or better selection. Have you been into a state-owned liquor store in Utah, one of the 18 states that are state-controlled?

The wine/liquor selection is limited because every store sells only what someone in the state office mandates. Want something different? Drive to Colorado, something Utahns already do.

According to the Huffington Post, Colorado is one of only five states that limit grocery stores to selling 3.2-percent ABV beer. The exception is that each chain in Colorado is limited to one full-strength license.

Another concern is the impact grocery store beer sales will have on craft brewers.

“We have a lot of craft beers that come in here on a day-to-day basis, from vendors that would like to see new placement,” said Schottleutner.

One argument for the success of craft brewers and distillers in Colorado is that liquor stores are able and willing to make room for new brands from small companies, something grocery chains can’t do because of limited shelf space reserved for national brands.

“It’ll kind of create an issue in the market where you’re only getting the top-selling brands,” Gaele Lopez with Beverage Distributors of Aurora, is quoted in the same Channel 7 interview. “A smaller brewery might have to close.”

An editorial last year in the Denver Post said Kevin DeLange, founder of Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora, said his business never would have achieved its success if not for Colorado’s regulations allowing breweries to self-distribute directly to liquor stores.

As is the case with any small producer looking to increase market options, DeLange said he poured samples of his Vanilla Porter and Apricot Blonde beers to owners and managers in neighboring liquor stores in efforts to entice them to sell his beers.

“We can go in there, and we can negotiate visibility and get the product in within a week,” Lange is quoted in the editorial.

However, Lange said he was rebuffed when he went to the Safeway store in Littleton, the chain’s only Colorado store (see the Huff Post entry above) that can sell full-strength beer.

“(The manager) actually chuckled,” DeLange is quoted as saying. “He said, ‘You have to go to California. You have to ask the home office.’ It took four months. There is no decision made at the local level of where they display products or signage.”

One argument for booze in the grocery store says it will break the monopoly held by liquor stores. Do you seriously think one City Market/King Soopers will compete (have lower prices) than the rest of the chain?

Walk into most Grand Junction liquor stores and someone’s there to help you find the right wine, beer or spirit. Ask for help choosing a wine in a grocery store and maybe you’ll get a produce clerk, onion in hand. Not fair to either person but for now, he or she is your only hope.

Local liquor stores also means your money stays in the community instead of the pockets of far-distant corporate stockholders.

In Grand Junction, the bigger stores –Fisher’s Liquor Barn, Andy’s Liquors, it’s a short list – may survive by cutting costs (that means jobs) and capitalizing on customer service, something large-chain grocery/liquor stores can’t provide.

But look at it this way.

I’m sure Little Sammy will be happy to run across town to the mega-box grocery store for bread, milk and a pint of Jack.

It gives him one more chance to try that fake ID.

(This column originally appeared in the Dec. 22, 2015 issue of the (Grand Junction, Colo.) Daily Sentinel.)

 

 

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