Monday, May 12, 2008

Reason #5: For Us, Okay; For You, Forget It

We already discussed how the PLCB has a personality split. One side of the agency wants to sell you booze (gotta make money at the State Store!), the other side wants to control how much you buy and how you drink it. Brilliant idea for a state agency.

But there's another two-sided bedevilment going on at the PLCB. The PLCB always says that they don't make the liquor laws in Pennsylvania, they just enforce them. Yes, that's an extent. Because when they enforce them, they also interpret them. So you'll get interpretations on just what a "case" of beer is, and about how licenses can be apportioned within a county, and ... and what constitutes a State Store, apparently. Because while the PLCB is currently "enforcing" laws that make it illegal to sell beer or liquor at a grocery store, they are also currently considering an "interpretation" that will justify them putting 100 wine vending machines in grocery stores. Really.

Reason #5:

The Liquor Code serves the PLCB, not the citizens of the Commonwealth.

The PLCB is not stupid; not entirely. They see the great opportunities for selling booze in supermarkets; they'd have to be truly blind not t0. The Pennsylvania Liquor code does not allow selling beer in supermarkets (the current fight over supermarket six-pack sales is not really that; it's over whether supermarkets or convenience stores that have restaurant spaces can get a license. I don't see the issue: it's a restaurant that happens to be in a grocery store. Restaurants are eligible to apply for a liquor license. What's the issue?), it limits the retail sale of liquor to State Stores, and limits wine sales to State Stores and Pennsylvania wineries.

But the PLCB wants to get those supermarket wine sales (it doesn't care about beer sales, because it doesn't sell beer). What to do? Someone got a brainstorm: re-define "State Store" to include off-site, remotely-monitored (wait till you hear that explanation), automated self-service wine kiosks. The PLCB wine robots will hold 500 bottles of wine, and the Board wants these automated stands to have measures in place so that no sales will be made to underage or intoxicated people.

How will they do that? Glad you asked. What I understand is that they want you to register to use the kiosks, providing biometric information, like a scan of your fingerprints. Then each kiosk will be remotely monitored -- a person at a remote site will use video and audio links to check you out and make sure you're not drunk before you buy. Because there are a lot of drunks who want to buy bottles of wine in supermarkets, apparently.

Most ludicrous of all, "because the kiosks will be in public settings, 'the PLCB is seeking a solution that prevents the viewing of wines in the wine kiosks by minors.'" (that's from Steve Twedt's article on this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Because we'd hate for a kid to see a bottle of wine. And get scared. Or excited. Or aroused. Or, God forbid, educated.

Privately-run, no beer solution, no liquor possibility, a limited selection of "popular choice" wines, and an unfair advantage -- AGAIN -- to the state monopoly. What's okay for them -- by their interpretation -- is one thing. And once again, we're all going to be so happy that we get this smidgen of service, that we'll forget what a ridiculous system this is.

The PLCB should be abolished because the PA Liquor Code engenders ridiculous and bizarre ideas like this. Wine vending kiosks are actually advanced retail technology; does anyone think an agency that can't even bring itself to recommend a particular wine or vintage will be able to handle it?

Do you want to buy wine in the supermarket? Do you want to buy wine from merchants who carry the wine you want to buy, when you want to buy it, and who will be only too happy to assist you to pick a great wine to meet your needs, your liking, your budget? Well, my friends, if you do, the answer is not automated kiosks teleoperated by some computer geek hundreds of miles away, recording your fingerprints and every single bottle of wine you purchase...

It's privatization, doing away with the archaic State Store System and allowing liquor stores to open, do business, and flourish or fail on their merits. If one of them has the bright idea of an automated wine kiosk, great, let them run it. But to have the State do it? Are you kidding?


Rich said...

I have a feeling if this gets passed the system will be a complete failure and a waste of money. The state will spend so much money to implement it that it will be scrapped in 5 years because they cannot make back their initial investment.

This is a system that is taking away another level of the already super-personal service offered by the state store system. I'm sure there will be a whole handful of wine drinkers that will love this.

Here's another facet of this to explore. The state system claims that they put their stores in convenient areas, like strip malls near grocery stores. They claim to have expanded their hours and opened up for Sunday sales in the name of convenience. Yet, through all this, they still feel their system is not convenient enough that they have to open it up even more with these kiosks.

This is something that private industry could offer us that the state, apparantly can not...24/7/365 service.

Lew Bryson said...

Actually, Rich, that's another thing about this: it would be completely sub-contracted to a private company! The State would essentially make no investment other than the money spent on the feasibility study and the negotiations, setting it up and maintaining the contract. The company would pay the State for the right to make money selling wine.

And how is this different from licensing private booze stores?

Anonymous said...

Wine kiosks? That seems like a high-cost method of getting wine into grocery stores (some of which will already have beer on the shelves), but also seems like the PLCB is taking the first step in hoisting themselves on their own petards.

There was an op-ed piece in today's local paper, written by a state representative, about the vast potential of private/public partnerships, like the privatization of the PA Turnpike. Will our State Stores be far behind?

Great issues being brought to the table here, BTW!

Rich said...

Oh wow. The contractor thing puts a new status on it. If the PLCB isn't doing anything...WHY DO THEY FREAKIN' EXIST?!?! How weak. Who's pockets at the PLCB were lined by probably the only contractor that is bidding this out? Conspiracy theory, I know, but you always gotta ask.