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  
Abadia Retuerta Selección Especial Sardon de Duero  
Reynvaan Syrah Walla Walla Valley In The Rocks  
Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Montafi Ranch  
M. Marengo Barolo Bricco delle Viole  
Château Coutet Barsac  
Yes 3% Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley  
No SLO Condado de Haza Ribera del Duero  
Arcanum Toscana Il Fauno  
Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard  
Sparkman Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Holler  
Cune Rioja Gran Reserva  
No SLO Mocali Brunello di Montalcino  
No SLO DuMOL Syrah Russian River Valley  
Villa Pillo Toscana Borgoforte  
Bodegas y Viñedos Maurodos Toro San Román  
Matthews Claret Columbia Valley  
Domaine Carneros Brut Carneros Ultra  
Tenuta di Trinoro Toscana Le Cupole  
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...


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

This will only hurt a little bit, we're just flexible pricing.

On January 1st, the PLCB raised the price of 341 bottles of Booker's Bourbon from $59 to $99.99, a 66% increase. Bottles that they already had in stock on the shelves across the state. Bottles that they had already bought and paid for at a lower price. This was in anticipation of the published March or April price increase by Jim Beam on NEW product.

However, Beam didn't increase the price to $99.99 due to consumer pressure and outrage, They decided that an increase to $69.99 would be enough at the moment, and changed their minds before the actual price increase took effect. So how come the PLCB price went to $99.99 anyway? (Update: the PLCB has belatedly lowered the price to $69.99...but you are still paying more for bottles they bought at a lower price.)

The PLCB excuse was that they raised the price for Booker’s to $99.99 on January 1 “at the request of the vendor,” according to PLCB spokesman Shawn Kelly. I'd like to see that in writing. Remember: Beam gets no benefit from an immediate price increase, so what the PLCB is saying is that Beam told them, 'Hey, fine. Screw your citizens by raising the price across the board, limiting sales and competitive pricing of our product so you can make more money in your little monopoly.'

There are two factors at work here, a desperate desire to maximize 'profit,' and lack of any consumer protection and overwatch. The PLCB used to brag about how they controlled price increases, saying that industry instituted more increases then they had, but now increases are seen as a way to make more money for the state by gouging the consumer.

How does that work? Say Bottle "A" sold on the shelf for $25 before "Flexible Pricing;" the PLCB paid about $14.50 for it before all the taxes, fees, markups and rounding they add. Now, with "flexible pricing," the bureaucrats decide to negotiate to try and save themselves some of that money. (Negotiating is something they could have been doing all along when it would have benefited the consumer, but they chose not to. But now it benefits the PLCB, so full speed ahead, boys!)

Back to the example. The PLCB knows that another state's monopoly system only pays around $12.30 for the same bottle. They've known for decades that other states pay less, and decided not to do anything about it. There was a conscious decision that having a lower price yet selling more product to increase overall sales was not something the PLCB wanted to do. Too much work selling that extra amount of product for that sales increase, apparently. Yet, keeping the same price, selling the same amount, and gouging the consumer by not passing any savings along when producers offered deals was decided to be perfectly acceptable.

The PLCB now manages to get $1.50 shaved off of the wholesale price. To make sure that the same amount of taxes are collected, they increase the markup from what used to be a standard 30% to nearly 47% to reach the same point to apply the 18% Johnstown Flood Tax. The consumer sees NONE of the price reduction from the agency's "buying power." The state doesn't collect any more taxes, but the PLCB gets to say they are making more money, and they cover their ballooning operating expenses for another few years. Remember: the amount the state gets by having the PLCB in the middle is less than they would get if taxes were raised by the same amount. The cost to the consumer is the same. In other words, we get to pay more to keep the PLCB jobs program afloat.

Here's another example of the "benefit" of flexible pricing: sale items. The PLCB itself doesn't put anything on sale, other than closeouts (of items they can't be bothered to sell), and out of season items ,like the Christmas gift packs that are on sale now. Everything else that you see a sale tag on is a reduction from the producer. Formerly, the PLCB had to pass on those reductions to the consumer; that was the law (and a good law to keep a monopoly in check). What they can do now is "recapture" some of that savings that was supposed to go to you, the consumer, through the magic of "flexible pricing."

Here's how that works. Suppose a distillery offers a $5.00 off special to the PLCB. Used to be that the PLCB approved the sale, printed up sale tags, and the citizens got to pay closer to what some other places charge. But under the new "modernization" law, "flexible pricing" allows the PLCB to decide that they don't want the citizens to have $5.00 off, that $3.00 off is good enough ("Good enough" should be their agency-wide motto), so they take the full $5.00 discount from the producer, print up sale tags for $3.00 off, and they keep the other $2.00 - such a deal! Doesn't that make you feel good about "modernization"? Don't you wonder what rat hole your two bucks is going down?

PLCB apologists will point out that private business can and does do the same thing. Sure, they can, but there is one thing that keeps that in check: competition from other businesses. If you decide to keep that extra $2.00, but your competition down the street (remember, private liquor sales means a "alcohol on every street corner") doesn't, and guess who will have more sales? But pass on some of that wholesale price reduction to your customers, and who will have more repeat business?

This is the heart of it. The total lack of competition in Pennsylvania is why we pay more, why we have less convenience, why we have less selection, and why we don't have the same protection from price gouging the free market provides. Don't like what the State Store System has, at the price they charge? Screw you, you have no choice. But if you're in a free state, and you don't like what Bob's Liquor has at the price they charge? You can just go somewhere else where the selection or prices are better.

This lack of choice will always make the citizens serve the needs of the PLCB  instead of them serving the needs of the citizens.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New Year Wishes

I wish the PLCB would stop bragging about going from 601 stores to 608...when they used to have 760.

I wish the PLCB was less focused on hiring "good ol' boys" who know their cockamamie 'system'...instead of people who actually know liquor and liquor retail.

I wish the State Stores were even more convenient than when there were 760 stores.

I  wish that sometime, before the end of the decade, all the State Stores at least had the same name.

I wish that "wine specialists" were actually required to have formal, industry-recognized credentials before they were called "wine specialists."

I wish the people who select wine for the entire state had to have even better credentials than the "wine specialists."

I wish there was somebody at the PLCB who really knew whisk(e)y, above what they read in the labels and importer sell-sheets.

I wish that the Legislature understood that "flexible pricing" is PLCB-speak for "gouging the consumer."

I wish that the Legislature would stop mucking around with beer sales and simply let everybody with a license sell any size or quantity.

I wish that if we couldn't do that, at least the Legislature were smart enough to realize that not every gas station and grocery store wants to be a restaurant, and come up with a purely take-out license.

I wish that if we still have to keep the licenses as they are, we could at least go back to the older, higher quota of licenses per county, so that independent, Pennsylvania-owned small businesses had a better chance of getting one.

I wish that the BLCE was funded at the same level as 2000 so that all these new places could be checked for compliance...including the State Stores, which never are.

I wish that the FBI, once they complete their investigation of PLCB leadership, will come down like the Hammer of God on all involved.

I wish that the PLCB knew something about marketing to realize the exact same selection doesn't have to be sold at every single store from Center City Philly to beautiful downtown Snow Shoe, and that specialization in retail works for a reason.

I wish that the PLCB knew something about math and economics before they made decisions.

I wish the PLCB had people with real world experience make those decisions.

I wish that the PLCB and the Legislature would take a road trip across the Delaware and see what a real "superstore" looks like.

Most of all, I wish that we end this farce of "acting like a business" and let real business handle this business, and leave the PLCB free to do what government agencies are supposed to do: handle regulation and enforcement.

When something doesn't work, or work well, for 83 years, you don't "modernize" it.

Privatization fixes all of the above. Let's stop trimming around the edges and get it done.