Monday, March 27, 2017

The numbers don't lie...but somebody is

In the House Appropriations Budget Meeting for the PLCB held earlier this month, the PLCB leadership said that they would have to dip into reserves to meet the Governor's anticipated request for $185 million. Why is that, if "modernization" is going to be the windfall that the Governor (and clerks' union president Wendell W. Young IV) says it is? Are their arguments that facile?

The Governor said in his "Budget In Brief" of 02/07/17 (pg.15) that through modernization ..."an additional $137 million in LCB revenues will be generated." The PLCB didn't correct or disagree with that number. So let's see what doesn't add up. If their income for FY 2015-16 — after paying for the BLCE, but before the General Fund Transfer — was $103,856,933 (which it was, according to their financial report), then a $137 million increase would take it to just over $240 million. But if the PLCB has to dip into reserves to pay $185 million, that has to mean that their so-called "profit" is less than $185 million.
OH NO!  42 million of my friends are missing!
However, during that same budget meeting — in sworn testimony — the PLCB said that even with record sales again, they would only make about $90 million for FY 17-18. That $90 million and $137 million "modernization bonus" take it to $227 million in total. That's $42 million more than the $185 million they said they could pay IF they dipped into reserves. So where is this $42+ million going? If they make the $90 million they project, and the $137 million additional that they didn't object to, then turning in $185 million to the General Fund should be no problem. Remember that these numbers are what the PLCB calls "profit," so everything (except the $238 million in pension debt...but that's another story) is already covered.

We have to ask: why after all the "modernization" is in place does the PLCB think they are actually going to make LESS than they did in FY 15-16?

Could it be that "modernization" is a sham, and that it isn't going to bring $137 million, or $100 million, or even $80 million? Is being off by well over 60% how the Governor and the PLCB do estimates? How big a failure is this going to be? The MINIMUM $42 million off would push this well beyond wine kiosk failure, or the 66% computer cost overrun, or selling house brands or anything I can think of. This would be a failure the size of the 82 year lie that the State Stores would be convenient to the public. They got what they wanted, "flexible pricing" and all, so show us the modernization money, PLCB!

Do the math and decide: are they just stupid? Or is the PLCB deliberately misrepresenting how much money they will bring in for the Commonwealth?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why does PA think the PLCB has more value than the Military?

Back in August of 2014 I wrote about the supposed value of the PLCB workforce compared to the rest of the labor market. I said, "One can get an idea of how society values a profession by the compensation given." It's a fundamental truth of how the free market works...except in Pennsylvania, where the Legislature has denied reality for decades and inflated the value of PLCB workers to an extreme.

What do I mean? Try this. According to testimony at the State Senate Appropriations Committee meeting of 2 March 2017, the average value of benefits for a full time PLCB employee is 93.6% of salary; so for example, the value of benefits for a clerk making $30,000 a year would be 93.6% of their salary ($28,800), so their total compensation would be $58,800.

Now, for the actual average of a Liquor Store Clerk 2, that's a total of $64,060 in salary and benefits. Here's the rub. Compare that to a US Army Sergeant (E5) with six years in service, who these days may even have a couple combat tours under their belt: $55,233. (If you want to check my math...see below.*)

Really? Why are liquor store clerks worth about $9,000 a year more than combat infantrymen to the state of Pennsylvania? Is their job more stressful?  Do they work longer hours? Do they perform a greater service to the citizens?
I don't know who made this shirt but I want one**.
Of course, you can make this comparison with other jobs, and if you saw compensation like that the prices would probably be higher at that store or firm...but the State isn't forcing you to buy products from that person in that place under penalty of law. You have choices in the free market: you don't have to buy that product, and you don't HAVE to shop in that store. You don't HAVE to support a monopoly. But you do...if you're buying wine in Pennsylvania. (Yes, yes, with the exception of Pennsylvania-made wines bought direct, right.)

So the next time you have to go to the State Store, or have to settle for something because the bureaucrats in Harrisburg decided not to sell the item you wanted in their monopoly system, and they don't allow you to go anywhere else, stop for a moment. Ask yourself if maybe the state should be funding Veteran's care with the same zeal they fund state store clerks.

Privatization fixes that.


*pennwatch.pa.gov lists everybody and their salary who works for the state including those in the PLCB. Search under Liquor Control Board for Agency Name, then select Liquor Store Clerk 2 under the Positions drop-down menu in the results. There are 22 pages of data: add up the individual salaries, divide by the number of them to get an average, and then multiply that result by 1.963 to get the total of the average salary and benefits. For those working for Uncle Sam it is a bit easier.  They do it for you on this site (I used the PLCB HQ in Harrisburg zip code). I've just gone ahead and done the math on the PLCB compensation for you, but you can check my work.

** Buy the T-Shirt here!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

After 80+ Years...There are Some Things You Should Know

Looking at the PLCB's inventory sometimes gives the impression that they never learned to read the simple information on a liquor label. If you call them on it, they are usually pretty quick to blame the vendors, saying they are supposed to provide this information. But passing that buck just proves they don't really care if the information the public gets is correct or not.

Let's see how stupid they were this week.

I can't even begin to come up with any excuse why this isn't filled out correctly; maybe they can't read and type in the same day.
This one is a little trickier because, uh, you know, it's a long way from the 1st to 4th line.
This one is simple if you've been in the liquor business long enough to get your first paycheck: Scotch can only be made in Scotland. Period. The Scotch Whisky Association, the EU, and the US government all agree. In fact, there are a number of these types of spirit; I'll list the others as a service to the PLCB, in case they get confused again.*
  • Bourbon can only be made in the U.S. - so that means it is all domestic.
  • Cognac can only be made in the Cognac region of France - that means they are all imported.
  • Armagnac and Calvados can only be made in France -  also all imported.
  • Irish Whiskey can only be made in, yup, Ireland - again, imported.
  • Brandy de Jerez can only be made in Spain -  so they'd be imported.
  • Tennessee Whiskey can only be made in Tennessee - that means it is all domestic.
Now I know it will take some time to fix this (although a real business could probably do it in a week, or less). So I'll keep posting examples just so they don't forget or ignore it, like they have been for the last 20 or 30 years. You know..."in the public interest."

Went to see the chairman, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

We deserve better - PRIVATIZE NOW.


*If you have any questions about this you should have asked them decades ago but just in case - here is the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Trade Agreements Negotiations and Compliance letter on the subject.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Led, managed and staffed by incompetents

Pretty rough title isn't it? Sure, I'll admit it is...unless you can prove it.

Let's keep looking at the "improved product search feature of the Fine Wine & Good Spirits online store," as Chairman Holden called it 2 years ago!. To me, it is still so bad I can't think of anything they actually improved. Just reference the last blog post, where I talked about the PLCB not being able to get the product totals matching across the inventories available to the public; they couldn't even get them to agree on the same page.

The reason for that may be the thousands of dead listings for products no longer carried that the PLCB doesn't clean out of the system. I'm guessing it's because that would be THOUSANDS of products that they could no longer claim when they make their boasts to the public about how many thousands of products they carry. Do you really think that the 2011 Jack Daniel's Holiday Select is coming back?  It's been five fricking years since it was in stock, but it's still listed in the system. Maybe they're still waiting to get that picture before they delete it.

Am I cherry picking? Yep, and here is the 2012 cherry...
























And the 2013 cherry too!
You do see the "Out of Stock" on each one, right?
How incompetent to you have to be to keep something on inventory for five years when it is NEVER EVER going to return? Maybe it's because they're using a search system that was probably designed during the punch card era. You want to see how bad the search engine is? Let's look for some Old Forester.

It's going to be hard for the PLCB to admit it, but there aren't 1074 matches to Old Forester, and I guarantee none are Ardbeg, Aberfeldy, or Glenfarclas single malt Scotch whisky. Pretty worthless, isn't it? To add even more intelligence-insulting idiocy, if you look at the "Brand" listing on the left you won't even find Old Forester listed. Should I be more specific in my search?  Go ahead and put in Old Forester Bourbon and see what that gets you. Narrowing it down takes the number of hits from 1074 to 1355, now that's an improvement. No, that isn't a typo: being more specific increases the number of wrong choices to pick from.

Think that's bad? How about the 5,044 choices — of which 5,036 are wrong — for Four Roses:


How do real businesses handle this? You know, the ones that depend on customer satisfaction (because they don't have a police-enforced monopoly)? Let's have a look. Of course none of these are as big as the PLCB or have as many employees, or a $66 million computer system.

Binny's IL

Hi Time Wine CA

France 44 MN


State Line Liquor MD  (you'll have to enter "Old Forester")

This isn't rocket science...unless you work in Harrisburg. Free states have liquor stores with a real inventory of real products you can actually search for and find, and go to the shelf and touch. Not every store, of course, but Wawa ain't Wegmans, either. The PLCB claims to be "world class," so their online inventory system should be world class. It isn't.

The PLCB doesn't really give a damn about you, the consumer. It is easier to put plants in the stores and aprons on the clerks than it is to fix the systemic and inherent flaws in the leadership, management, and operational systems.

Went to see the chairman, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

We deserve better - PRIVATIZE!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Tracking the Trackers

Real business knows that tracking inventory is important, but the PLCB doesn't.

The faster, better, easier Product Search Page online inventory was recently down for almost four days.
FOUR DAYS! 
What kind of business has their inventory unavailable for four days?  A poorly run and managed one. They could use the excuse that their "other" inventory page (the "Fine Wine and Good Spirits!" page) was available. But look here: if they can't even get the category numbers to jibe on the same page, why should you trust that inventory?

I was looking at Cognac on the Product Search Page when it went down, so I had to use the "Fine Wine and Good Spirits!" website instead, which led me to this page. You'll note that the full number of items at the top is shown as 214; but the total of the available items shown at the left...is 189. Huh?

In the real world of my business, the total items available should match the total in inventory. Listing products you don't have or can't get serves no real purpose except to inflate your numbers when you lie to the citizens (or the Legislature...again) about how many products are available. Something that both the UFCW and the PLCB are prone to do, and we've told you that for years.

Not being able to match numbers on a single page begs the question of where these inventory numbers came from, and why don't they match across online product searches. Take a look what happened when I tried the same search on the Product Search Page once it came back up:

This total, 174, doesn't match 189 or 214, so which is it, PLCB? What random number is closest to what you actually have? I'd bet that none of them are correct, given the history of incompetence at the agency. For over five years they haven't been able to get Jack Daniel's (spelled "Jack Daniel's", see the label to the left!) listed correctly. They have Jack listed in both Whiskey, Bourbon (Straight) and Whiskey (Blended) and use a few different spellings. If they can screw up their #1 seller that much imagine how badly they screw up the rest.You can find your own examples if you think I'm cherry picking. I mean, I am, but believe me, I could pick the whole damn tree for you.

While inventory numbers are important, so is knowing what you are selling. If you look at the above picture again, you'll see it says COGNAC (IMPORTED). Guess what, PLCB: it's all (IMPORTED), because Cognac can only be made in Cognac, France! There is no such thing as COGNAC (DOMESTIC). Ya dopes.


It's just another example of the poor quality customer service that inevitably comes from a monopoly, because they know they don't have to do anything better, since the consumer can't go anywhere else. A real business depends on current, correct and factual information being provided to the customer, because they know they wouldn't be in business if they ran things like the PLCB does.

End the fiasco of fake business and PLCB incompetence - PRIVATIZE.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Let's Sum Up: the last nine years

It's not exactly nine years since I started this blog, but it's close enough, considering where we are. Seemed like a good time to take stock.

There was a lot of sturm und drang in the first seven years, "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." The idiots in this case, of course, were the Republican members of the Pennsylvania Senate, led by the surprisingly obstructionist Senator Chuck McIlhinney (R-10), who managed to consistently thwart a clear majority for liquor privatization in the House, led by Speaker Mike Turzai.

Me and King Dork
Whatever the reason, McIlhinney worked with the Democrats (de facto, if not actual hand-in-glove) to keep a solid privatization bill from being laid on Governor Tom Corbett's desk. Corbett would most definitely have signed it, too. McIlhinney knew that, so he never gave him the chance. Could Corbett have been re-elected if he'd been able to deliver liquor privatization? Maybe, and then we'd be in the middle of four more years of King Log, instead of the current ham-handed reign of King Dork, but it's impossible to know.

Then came the election in 2014, and things changed, in a strange way. The GOP increased their legislative majority, but the party's abandonment of Tom "One Term Tommy" Corbett made that less useful by giving us Tom "One Term Tommy" Wolf (I really want "One Term Tommy" to become a Pennsylvania colloquialism for any Governor who fails to win a second term, no matter what their first name actually is). That upset the balance, but once the long budget logjam finally broke (a nasty defeat for King Dork), suddenly things happened.

Lurking in the background; why is
he still allowed to drink in PA?
Bang! We got takeout wine sales at licensees (right, not at groceries or convenience stores, just ones with tavern licenses, and with the stupid "cafe" requirement, and a limit of four bottles, and it's gotta cost the same or more as the State Stores, and the PLCB is still the wholesaler, and of course no spirits sales), we got direct wine shipment (only from wineries, no out of state retailers or importers, and again limits), more stores open on Sundays...whoopee...and we got a surprising little grab bag of other kind of neat stuff like looser cider and mead regulation...none of which really affected the state's retail/wholesale monopoly. And of course, we also got flexible pricing, the gleaming hook inside all the colorful lure of the rest of it.

They were, unfortunately, almost all things that McIlhinney wanted. Why does this man, this second-rate hack from Bucks County who's in a variety of pockets, get to rule over the liquor reform we've wanted for decades? The GOP put him there, and continues to leave him there, despite the way he thumbs his nose at the House majority and the Speaker on these issues.

Yep: you can get the whole thing, or just one bottle.
Ye gods and little fishes. Of course, we also, finally, cross it off the list, saw an end to the much-hated Case Law. Which was awesome, and great, and all that...except of course that the Case Law's evil twin, the Two Sixpack Law that afflicts bars, restaurants, and grocery stores is still firmly in place. And I have to admit, I'm not sure if it applies across types; if I went into the State College Wegmans, could I get two sixpacks and four bottles of wine? Mind blown.

The sad thing is how excited we all are about this. We're whooping it up -- the Case Law is dead! We kin buy us wine at the Giant Eagle! -- so much that we don't even notice how sad it still is.

  1. We still aren't even up to "normal," let alone "world class." New Hampshire is still better off: lower prices, better State Store System (much much better), and wine in stores all over the place; New Jersey is much better off, Maryland, Delaware...we're finally a step ahead of Utah, and that's cause for celebration? 
  2. Spirits haven't changed a bit, except for the flexible pricing that will soon be costing us more.
  3. And worst of all: the half-assed way that we finally were allowed to buy beer and wine at grocery stores -- by letting them buy one of the restricted number of tavern/restaurant licenses -- is causing the price of those licenses to skyrocket, as I warned here (I've warned about this for years). Over $500,000 for a liquor license, just for the piece of paper, so a Giant Market can sell sixpacks? That's putting small independent grocers out of the game (and likely out of business), and making it too expensive for restaurants to have a bar. Hope you like BYOB.

The Case Law is dead, and that's definitely progress. The changes for off-site and cross-license sales for Pennsylvania breweries/distilleries/wineries/cideries/meaderies are a tremendous opportunity (one the State Stores surely weren't delivering). And the 'zombie license' auction, even though it transparently benefits chain stores and the PLCB over everyone else, does, at least, free up some more licenses.

But we still have a long, long way to go.
We're not done till there's whiskey in private stores.
We're not done till they don't need a "cafe" to sell booze.
We're not done till the state's out of the retail and wholesale booze business.
We're not done till this whole thing gets sorted out.

And when we're done...what happens to the guys who got us through this stupid period? The GREAT sixpack shop owners and managers, the GREAT owners and managers of the exceptional beer distributors? You know, the folks who will now own a largely worthless business, as supermarkets and convenience stores undercut them relentlessly on prices, while inevitably shrinking selection (not completely, maybe, but it's never going to be their focus)?

What happens to all those State Store System employees, a significant number of which do a decent job at the register, and some of whom honestly do have a passion for what they're doing? Do they find new jobs? Do they open liquor stores?

What happens when the Legislature finally gets its gumption up and puts a real stake through the heart of this zombie relic of Repeal?

What then? WHAT THEN?

Gun it! The Finish Line is in sight!
I don't know. But specialist booze emporiums do survive and thrive in states where supermarkets sell booze. So they can work here, once we get to that point.

So let's get going, let's keep going, and get this done. Don't slow down, don't listen to the last ditchers who will tell you "We have to give these changes a chance to work out!" No, actually, we don't. We can admit that they were a compromise that didn't need to be made. The time to change this is now, before we have another entrenched set of entitlements.

We've got the momentum. Let's finish this.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Even more wine incompetence

I've been told that using only the top 10 of the Wine Spectator list is too selective, and if the number of wines checked was a larger sample, the PLCB would do better. I agree: as we get closer to mediocrity, the PLCB should do better because that is where their strength lies.


But how much better? Not that much; in fact, not at all.  Have a look at the next 20 wines in the Wine Spectator top 100 list. With three times as many top wines to have been selected by the PLCB's "experts," they only get two more on the State Store shelves, and three by SLO special order only.

(This is broken down by In Stock (Y/N), How Many Stores Carrying, Item Name)
Yes 3% Hamilton Russell Chardonnay Hemel-en-Aarde Valley  
No
Abadia Retuerta Selección Especial Sardon de Duero  
No
Reynvaan Syrah Walla Walla Valley In The Rocks  
No
Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Montafi Ranch  
No
M. Marengo Barolo Bricco delle Viole  
No
Château Coutet Barsac  
Yes 3% Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley  
No SLO Condado de Haza Ribera del Duero  
No
Arcanum Toscana Il Fauno  
No
Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard  
No
Sparkman Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Holler  
No
Cune Rioja Gran Reserva  
No SLO Mocali Brunello di Montalcino  
No SLO DuMOL Syrah Russian River Valley  
No
Villa Pillo Toscana Borgoforte  
No
Bodegas y Viñedos Maurodos Toro San Román  
No
Matthews Claret Columbia Valley  
No
Domaine Carneros Brut Carneros Ultra  
No
Tenuta di Trinoro Toscana Le Cupole  
No
Mollydooker Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love  

This state agency will never have the knowledge or will to select exceptional wine except by accident. They will never have the passion that their customers do and so will never be able to satisfy them. It seems that the monkeys are winning; listen to those typewriters...

Privatize.