Thursday, October 23, 2014

Springfield and Philly. What a difference not having the PLCB makes!

Springfield Mo., "the queen city of the Ozarks." Population 167,000 with an MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) of a whopping 450,000. 
Philadelphia, "the city of brotherly love" (and those who buy their booze across borders). Population 1,526,000 with an MSA of 6 million.

Why am I comparing these two places? They both have a whiskey festival, although technically the one in PA is called the Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival. "Fine Spirits" apparently includes things like Smirnoff Sorbet Light Peach and Ole Smoky Moonshine Hunch Punch, according to the masters of the mundane in Harrisburg.

So what do you get for your VIP dollars in PA? A chance to taste 304 spirits (really only 292, because some are listed twice!) of which about half (151) are something I would call whiskey or whisky. In Springfield you get  at least 200 whiskies and none are called Hunch Punch. You can look for yourself. Here is Philly, and here is Springfield. Not even close, which just shows the sad state that the PLCB is in. If a magazine can sponsor and put together a pretty good whiskey festival in a town the size of Springfield, but the 3rd largest retailer of spirits has to scrape the bottom of the barrel and still falls short, that speaks volumes about how well the PLCB serves the citizens, and what the industry thinks of our backwards system. Yes, I know the Philly Festival is sponsored by a magazine too but they can't do it without the expressed approval and participation of the PLCB.

Look at all the spirits PA doesn't carry. Must be 100 of them -- but they all are available in the free market. Of course, a number of things at the Philly Festival aren't available in PA either, which means if you really want some, you'll have to break the law to get it. All courtesy of the PLCB, who approved all of this. Even the highlights mentioned by the PLCB are laughable. There are only three, and two are for items you can't get. 

I especially like that Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey will be offered for tasting. It isn't carried at all by the PLCB, so the entire state is missing out on some pretty good whiskey. You can't get it if you did like it anyway. I guess they think the drive to State Line Liquors in MD is close enough. Which brings up the question: why even have this at the festival if the PLCB doesn't carry it? If you have no chance of buying some of the things they are offering, what's the point? It really does show how limiting and ignorant the people in Harrisburg are.

Face it, the PLCB is the reason why we can't even have a half-assed whiskey festival. People that do real festivals laugh at the PLCB and us the same way we laugh at somebody trying to buy a six pack at a distributor. You know that is the way it should be done, but somehow in PA it is never done right.

If you want to go to one of these things, plan a trip.  There are numerous festivals in the US, far better than the PLCB ones in Philly and Pittsburgh, plus you have a chance to actually buy the products you taste and give your money to somebody that cares about the consumer.  DC, New York, Boston Vegas, Nashville, LA, Bardstown, Atlanta, and more  As a consumer you deserve the best, so why support the worst?  The Free Market is the only real Modernization.


Sam Komlenic said...

See you at WhiskyFest New York!

Anonymous said...

Al, what bugs me so much about the PLCB is that for the past 25 years, it has been behaving like a private retailer that is perpetually in danger of going out of business. It seems to be inching towards death in much the same fashion as Sears/Kmart have been for years, yet being a state agency with the UFCW lobbying against privatization, we all know realistically it isn't going anywhere without a big fight. Seems like the UFCW is winning, yet state stores continue to close without being replaced, and with little or no notice.

Not unlike Sears/Kmart (and other retailers that would seem to be dying, such as A&P), the PLCB keeps throwing new store concepts at the wall, hoping one will stick. In fact to prove my point I can name TEN different store types that the PLCB currently operates!:

1. Standard stores (which have hardly changed since self-service was introduced in 1970)

2. Premium collection stores

3. Outlet stores

4. Wholesale stores

5. One-stop shops (inside supermarkets)

6. Fine Wine & Good Spirits (let's lop all the stores with this new name into one category, though they do vary in size)

7. Wine boutiques (the only one right now is at Garces Trading Company, but others were tried in the 80's and closed long ago)

8. Specialty stores (these have "premium" wines but a VERY minimal selection, usually set apart from the other contents of the store by being stored on wooden shelves)

9. Superstores (almost identical in size to premium collection stores, but instead of having walk-in chillers, they have a carpeted section with a low ceiling to showcase their best wines)

10. Counter stores (yes Pittsburgh still has at least one of these)

Albert Brooks said...

You forgot the Frankenstein stores that try to be multiple things badly like the Premium Collection/Outlet/Specialty store in Southern York county.

I didn't know about anything with an actual designation of a "Superstore" but I get your point.

As for Kmart and Sears....people will miss them when they are gone, not so with the state stores.

Anonymous said...

I actually am glad the last privatization plan got defeated, because as I understood it, beer distributors would have become the primary stores for all three alcohol types. The beer distributors in PA (with a few notable exceptions) all seem so seedy and uninviting. And while I understand the value of small businesses, I hate the fact that we seem to have no beer store chains.

On a similar subject, I must say the PA wine/spirits system in my opinion is better than buying wine/spirits in states such as New York, which forbid supermarkets from selling those items (though they do have beer) while also forbidding chain liquor stores. Thus, the majority of liquor stores in the state are small and seedy. Also I must ask a rhetorical question... in states where supermarkets (and drugstores, convenience stores, Walmart/Kmart/Target, etc) dominate alcohol sales, meaning dedicated liquor stores are few in number or nonexistent, isn't the alcohol selection available at most stores pretty small? And especially as far as wine is concerned? The larger PLCB stores would seem to dwarf the wine selection at most non-PA supermarkets...

Albert Brooks said...

I agree the last plan was a complete Rube Goldberg idea from Mcilhinny which was pretty much designed to fail. Beer distributors would not be the primary seller, that was a plan or two earlier, they would have had first choice of licenses though.

AFAIK, there is no state where Walmart/Target/Kmart dominate liquor probably but not liquor. If you can provide information otherwise I'll read it.

How you can say dedicated liquor stores are few in number is also something I haven't found but that might depend on your idea of dedicated since the majority of states allow mixed sales - 36 allow wine/beer sales in supermarkets for example and 38+ (I may be off on that) allow convenience store beer sales.

Any store size is reflective of the demand of the consumer. If the area doesn't support a store of 10,000 sq ft it will fail and a smaller store will take its place. The consumer ultimately decides not some cube rat in Harrisburg, that is how the free market works.

Seedy - while hard to define is again ultimately consumer or regulation driven. No better or worse than say used car dealers. Consumers decide what every facet of their purchase is worth to them while in PA the state decides.

You say that the larger PA stores have a better selection of wine than other states supermarkets. Well DUH! How about you compare the larger PA stores with the larger WINE stores. Not only is PA outnumbered in total, per capita, size and selection but those stores have in general, far more knowledgeable people running them.

The state system doesn't limit your choices it takes them completely away. No choice on selection, no choice on price, no choice on location, no choice on service, no choice on delivery, no choice on knowledge, no choice on convenience, no choice on availability (hours - days open) and no choice to go anywhere else where you DO get a choice.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for any confusion about my comments above. All I meant to say was that supermarkets selling booze (selling all three types of alcohol, as in California) can be an obstacle to liquor stores (in this case also selling all three types of alcohol) being successful. Also, I believe people have just as much of a right to open a CHAIN of liquor stores (or in PA, beer stores, let's not get into state stores right now) as they have the right to open a CHAIN of drugstores, supermarkets, etc. Unfortunately the state of New York disagrees with me on this.

Also, I think maybe small, independent (of the huge corporations) breweries, wineries, and distilleries might all benefit if private liquor store chains sold most if not all of the beer, wine, and spirits in the nation. Maybe these small alcohol producers could partner with the chain stores to share advertising costs, distribution costs, etc. Look at Trader Joe's and the German non-alcoholic beer brand, Gerstel (not sure but I think the makers of Gerstel also make real beer, but under a different name). Now if chain liquor stores were in all 50 states and each chain had such an agreement with at least one beverage maker, I think we wouldn't be stuck with urban liquor stores that only sell the most popular, deep-pocketed brands of everything.

Or maybe someday a cooperative or cooperatives could be created to link many otherwise unrelated, mom-and-pop liquor stores together, using a similar arrangement to how cooperatives such as True Value, Ace, and Do it Best link otherwise independent hardware stores to one another.

And one other point I must make: I think the alcohol laws of most US states are ridiculous. Why in so many states can supermarkets sell beer, but not wine or spirits, OR sell beer and wine, but not spirits? Somehow is alcohol abuse being prevented by supermarkets having to abide by these restrictions? Or is the decision to segregate the three types of booze an economic one that has nothing to do with stopping alcohol abuse? If so, these laws would make sense, but no matter what the reasoning, are an infringement on the rights of supermarket owners.

In states with all three alcohol types in supermarkets, most of the liquor stores are found either in poor, high-crime areas where supermarkets are afraid to be, but on the other hand, one can find upscale liquor stores (often termed as wine stores even though they have beer and spirits) in rich areas, especially rich areas with few or no supermarkets due to space limitations.

Albert Brooks said...

We each have our own ideas but I don't see yours being implemented anywhere or even being tried. We'll have to leave that theoretical discussion for another time.

I don't even agree with your claim that in states with grocery store alcohol sales have most liquor stores being in poor areas. Businesses go where the money is. Since most of the population is suburban and rural as opposed to urban it stands that there would be more businesses there to satisfy the needs of that population.

I do agree that in states with grocery store alcohol sales you will see stand alone liquor stores in poor areas instead of grocery stores because liquor has a higher margin and is far easier to stock than produce.

The alcohol laws are a states rights vs. federal rights issue and while I tend to lean toward states rights I'd rather break it down even further to community rights to decide if to be wet or dry, have bars or only stores etc etc.