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Washington’s “hurry up” switchover from state to private liquor sales leaves some shelves bare

Post by John Gillie / The News Tribune on June 1, 2012 at 9:54 am |
June 1, 2012 4:03 pm

The condensed, sixth-month timetable to switch Washington liquor sales from state to private stores left some absent the spirits they had hoped to sell Friday.

That switchover to private sales came at midnight Friday, but few stores seemed completely ready to handle the demand.

Many former state stores were not yet open under their new owners. Big out-of-state liquor chains were still rushing to remodel existing retail sites into liquor supermarkets, and some grocery and drug chains opened with only part of their shelves stocked with booze.

At one Walgreen store in central Tacoma, the single end-of-aisle liquor display was stocked with only a few basic bottles. Of the 18 varieties of liquor the store planned to sell, only nine were in stock this morning.

In Sumner, the new owner of a former state store on Alder Street was scrambling Friday to get phone service and a cash register installed before he could unlock the doors.

That owner had bought the store’s remaining stock of liquor from the state said the liquor stocks at the store had dropped by half since he purchased the store in an April auction.

A sales representative of the state’s largest spirits distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, was waiting outside his door to take his order to replenish his stock.

At both Tacoma’s Metropolitan Market and Walmart, liquor shelves were half empty this morning. Workers at the Proctor district Metropolitan Market said they were still awaiting receipt of the rest of their stock from distributors.

“We haven’t had a delivery from one of our distributors in two weeks,” said one store’s liquor sales manager. “The distributors said, ‘Trust us, we know how to do this.’ Well, we’re still waiting.”

At a Tacoma Target store, about a third of the wine aisle had been set aside for hard liquor. It was sparsely stocked.

At a QFC store on Pacific Avenue, stockers will still filling the shelves that had been cleared to make room for spirits.

Distributors said they’re working overtime to help stores get their products in place.

“I think some of them may have waited until the last minute to enter their orders,” he said.

Meanwhile, at other former state stores, the new owners said they don’t expect to open until later this month. Most received access to their stores late last night or early today.

In downtown Puyallup, a former state store was closed Friday morning with signs indicating an inventory was in progress.

The state and new private liquor sales distributors and retailers have had a little more than six months since the passage of Initiative 1183 to dispose of the state stores, negotiate new leases, build distribution facilities, license new retailers, remodel stores and stock their shelves. Initiative 1183 ended the state monopoly on state liquor sales and distribution.

While some stores were still struggling to stock their shelves or to open their doors, others were well prepared.

The new liquor aisle at a Fred Meyer in Tacoma was crowded at 9:30 this morning.

Not everyone was there to buy.

“We just came to see it,” said Barb Belmont, a personal trainer who came to the store on South 19th Street with Arturo Garcia, one of her clients.

Both agreed: It reminds them of California.

“They throw liquor at you there,” Garcia said, describing ubiquitous buckets full of ice chilling single-serving liquor bottles on sale for about a dollar.

Neither of them thought liquor being more widely available would mean people would drink more. And it doesn’t really affect them anyway, they said. Belmont prefers a cranberry wine available at Tacoma Boys; Garcia said he has only a beer now and then.

Another customer said he was happy that private businesses were involved.

“I just don’t agree with the state being in the liquor business while being in the liquor control business,” said Handsome Hardy of Tacoma. “It’s a conflict.”

Plus, Hardy said he’s glad to avoid making a special trip to buy his customary four bottles for a bi-monthly raffle at a local Amvets Hall. He initially thought the prices were better, then read the fine print on the labels: Taxes aren’t included until checkout.

After Hardy paid, the verdict was in: He usually pays between $115 and $120 for those four bottles. This morning his tab was $122.95 — “between three and seven dollars more.”

A Bartell’s store in University Place was plentifully supplied with liquor. A Winco store in Federal Way was prepared for sales with full shelves.

Meanwhile at Tacoma’s Costco store, the store was crowded with shoppers checking out the liquor prices on the retailer’s store brands.

Costco was Initiative 1183′s biggest backer, spending more than $20 million to promote a positive vote on the initiative.

Costco liquor supply was primarily the company’s house brand in larger size bottles. By avoiding most name brands of liquor, Costco can avoid the distributors and their markup by making deals directly with distillers.

A sampling of prices on popular brands showed few bargains among the spirits sold at the new retail outlets compared with state prices. Some products were significantly more expensive compared with prices charged by state stores last month.

Prices shown on most store shelves didn’t include the 20.5 percent sales tax or the $3.7708 surcharge per liter added at the register.

A 750 milliliter bottle of Crown Royal whiskey with a shelf price of $24.99 at Walgreens would cost $32.94 at checkout after the taxes are added. At the state liquor stores before the privatization, that bottle cost $28.95 with everything included.

The Distilled Spirits Council blamed the high prices on Washington’s liquor taxes, which it claims are still the highest in the country.

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