Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A recent State Store experience

Forgot to tell you about this one. We had a nice bottle of wine back in the spring, an Alma Negra Bonarda Malbec, a dark Argentine red. It was so good I remembered it, and come December, when we were shopping for Christmas presents, I wanted to get a bottle for someone (and a couple for myself). I went to the State Store here in Newtown, and started looking.

No luck, so I whipped out the iPhone, and went to the PLCB's product search website to see if they even had it. They did, and when I drilled down further, I found that the local store (good old Store #0909!) had -- at that time -- 126 bottles of it. Couldn't find it in the Argentine section. So, against my better judgment, I asked a clerk. I'm looking for an Argentine Malbec called Alma Negra, I said (I'll admit my ignorance: I didn't know that Bonarda was a varietal. Malbec was all I recognized), could you help me find it? His very first words were "Oh, no, we don't have anything by that name." Very helpful!

Luckily, I still had the iPhone out, and I told him, Actually, the LCB website says you have 126 bottles of it! Maybe it's up front; it's a Chairman's Selection. And the guy says, "Oh, no, that's not a Chairman's Selection. We don't have any Argentine Malbecs as Chairman's." I was stunned, a bit, but rallied: Yes, it is, it says so right on your website. And I went towards the front of the store -- and almost tripped over the stuff. It was sitting in the middle of an aisle (among the domestics, far from the Argentina section...), four cases of it topped by an open case, with a Chairman's Selection sign on it.

Here it is, I said brightly, thanks! And he comes up, picks up the bottle, and points to the label, and says, "Oh, you see: it's a blend. It's not a Malbec." So I grinned, and said, You're right, I'm sorry. What else was I going to do? I was really, really sorry that I had to buy wine from people who clearly knew nothing about their stock -- and the guy's been working there for years -- and couldn't care less about helping a customer find a product.

See, this is why I grit my teeth when I read letters to the editor and comments on blogs where people talk about the wonderful service they get at the State Stores. Because while I'm sure there are at least some SS clerks out there who really want to help, and really know the products (there was a younger guy at #0909 who actually knew something about whiskey, although he was obnoxious about it), I have not had those kinds of experience. Cash register service? Just fine, no complaints. But advice? Guidance? Even common courtesy out in the aisles? You get better service at Home Depot.

And if this system went away, and we got private stores...I could just go somewhere else. But in PA? There's no point. And I'm literally forbidden by law to shop in New Jersey (and bring anything home, that is).


Jeff Frane said...

I hate to tell you this, Lew, but the problem isn't going away because you privatize, unless (a) the new legislation allows for small specialist wine shops and (b) you buy your wine from small specialist wine shops.

If licenses for stores are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as you suggest in another post, these shops are never going to appear, and you'll still be dealing with ignorant clerks who have no clue about their inventory.

Portland has one experimental liquor store which is allowed to sell spirits, wine and beer and it's the go-to store for hip bartenders. I listened to one of the clerks tell a customer that, no, sorry, they don't have the aquavit from local House Spirits. When she asked about other aquavits, he mentioned Krogstad--and I piped up that Krogstad was the aquavit from House Spirits.

Dumbass clerks are not limited to state employees.

Lew Bryson said...

Actually...that's one of my main worries about the privatization legislation; that it's going to be so focused on making money that what we get might be worse than what we have.

That said, I had another experience two years ago. Went to the State Store to get Luxardo maraschino. First response, honest to God: "We don't sell grenadine." Refused to look it up in their catalog, even after I explained what it was. FIRST store I went to in NJ, nothing special, 20's-looking big-hair gum-chewing girl says, "Oh, yeah, it's right down that aisle, halfway on the left, top shelf." And there it was.

Anecdotal, but hey...

Jeff Frane said...

Oregon's liquor stores have a mixture of counter & floor displays available. I usually avoid the former entirely -- they tend to be small, poorly-stocked and I don't get to fondle the merch. I think it's absolutely critical to be able to browse, to read labels, peer through the contents... and it's even more true with wine (and beer).

The real treat, of course, is to find a clerk that knows what the heck s/he's talking about.

Anonymous said...

Lew, you seem to run into the dumbest PLCB clerks. Admittedly, there are some who don't know sambuca from anisette, but at the store I work in, customer service isn't an issue unless you count certain PLCB policies that tie our hands. (No case discount, selection limited by PLCB allowance, taxes out the wazoo in and outside the list price). Chester County should offer a better experience for the most part. Delaware County seems pretty bad.

Lew Bryson said...

Don't know what to say: this is a premiere collection store, too. I'm not making it up, I swear. If the service was better, I may not have started this blog, no kidding.

Anonymous said...

Oh don't misunderstand, I know you're not lying. I just wish Delaware County's standards were a little higher. Every clerk should know the difference between grenadine and maraschino liqueur. Uninformed clerks like that make me angry, because many among the rest of us take pride in our work, realize the customer's satisfaction is top priority, and actually take an interest in what we sell.

Lew Bryson said...

Oh...I'm in Newtown, not Newtown Square. It's Bucks County, not DelCo. Not that it matters a lot, just clearing that up.
I would imagine this kind of thing would be very frustrating. Sympathy.

Anonymous said...

Oh, looks like I should be reading less wine labels and looking at more maps of Pennsylvania (Haha)
One more thing: whether or not the PLCB is phased out, I think that the people of PA will benefit from the battle. Reason being, the PLCB will hopefully finally stop feeling invincible and make some good decisions.

Lewis Houghton said...

Check out the poll on the right side of the Local 1776 website. I encourage everyone to take part in the democratic process:


Anonymous said...

i take offense at the way you have stereotyped all plcb employees.
okay,so you ran into a bad employee.that happens. that clerk is not typical of all plcb employees. i'm sure that you and everyone else has noticed that every business, every office ,almost every place of business has one of those employees. and yes,lew, i too have run into them. (at the grocery store, the post office, the doctors office, bank,,school......etc....) most plcb employees that i have come in copntact with bend over backwards for their customers and take great pride in their jobs.
lew, i am not sticking up for that ignorant clerk you encountered, but i noticed that you seemed to have already known alot about that malbec before you even went to the store. yet you immediately asked for assistance.maybe if you would have looked around for a minute or two,you would have noticed how the store was set up. chairmans selections, sale items, domestic wines, cordials, liquors, etc..all have their aisles and places. it's not like home depot or bj's where the store is so overwhelmingly huge , you don't even know where to begin.. it sounded like you were purposely were testing if not seeking out this sort of clerk hoping to find ignorance or shortcoming, maybe so you could have an excuse for starting this lame blog? you're lack of knowledge on this subject is apparent. you actually started a blog because i once had this bad clerk... and another bad experience was 2 years before that (wahh, wahhh!).....wow.!! 2 years go by and you only had 2 examples??? get real lew!!that sound like there were a few good experiences in between? go pick on somebody else!

Lew Bryson said...

Sigh. Okay, it was not a "test" of the employee. I was just looking for the wine and couldn't find it. The Chairman's Selections (and...does anyone believe that PJ Stapleton is really making those selections, like Newman did?) are all over the store, so why would you think I should be able to easily find something that might be anywhere in the store? (And I didn't go to the clerk "immediately," I said I looked for the wine first.) Seemed to know a lot about the wine? All I knew was the name, the country, and what the label looked like.

As for starting "this lame blog," I started it back in 2008. I didn't start it because I had a bad experience, it doesn't really have that much to do with the clerks. It has to do with the whole insanity of a state-controlled retail system. I've said, over and over and over, that the fate of the State Store employees is the hardest part of the whole issue.

But the state should not be in retail, and should not be running a jobs program for retail clerks. There will be plenty of jobs in a privatized system. I know people in other states in the wine and spirits (and beer) retail business, and they can make a good living if they learn their product and deliver good service. Seen it happen.

Sorry you took offense. Won't be changing my mind, though.

Reggie Smith said...

@anonymous (the last one) - I can verify that in all the state stores I've been into since moving up here three years ago, I've never once run into a helpful employee. Nice? Yeah, they all seem to be about as nice as you should expect. But helpful? Able to help me pick out wines? Absolutely not.

And as for wine/liquor store employees being even less helpful if privatized, I can say from experience in South Carolina that things are actually better with private stores. The difference is that when you have private stores there are more of them and you can choose where you go based off of where the employees are most helpful. Here, like I said above, it's depressing every time I want to buy wine/liquor because there is nowhere to go where people are helpful.

In South Carolina you've got huge stores--where even the newest employees at least know where to tell you to go to find what you're looking for and the older employees have actually had training on wine and liquor--and you've got the smaller stores where all the employees know exactly how to help you select a wine and can educate you (although you may pay a little more for wine there). For Pete's sake, if South Carolina makes your state look ass-backwards then you need to change something.

Lew, I've heard people talk about the illegality of bringing wine/liquor across state lines but I've never been able to find the actual law. Can you point me that way?

Lew Bryson said...

Reggie, here you go: http://noplcb.blogspot.com/2009/10/bringing-any-alcoholic-beverage-into.html
I asked, and the PLCB told me. Although they did add, of course, that it wasn't a binding interpretation...

Laurie D. said...

Statistics about drinking and car accidents:

Pennsylvania ranks 4th on these lists.

Now, this is interesting. It's no surprise that Texas and California would have especially high numbers, given both are very large and populous states. Pennsylvania is the 32nd(!!!) largest state in area and ranks 6th in population (pretty much tied with Ohio). Ohio, which has less restrictive liquor laws than Pennsylvania, ranks 9th on this list.

So Pennsylvania, with more restrictive liquor sales laws, has more alcohol-related car accidents, than states of similar size with less restrictive laws.

Lew Bryson said...

Laurie, be careful. Take a look at the national averages on those lists that represent the percentages of fatalities that were alcohol-related: PA ranks just a bit above the national average. Not a good place to be, but not terrible. We have a lot of roads in the state; PA has more miles of road than all of New England put together. It's not easy comparing apples to apples in a thing like this.

That said...Control doesn't seem to be doing us a lot of good, does it?