If You Live in Pennsylvania You Still Can't Buy Beer at the Grocery Store

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25 March 2008
If You Live in Pennsylvania You Still Can't Buy Beer at the Grocery Store
Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board cleared the way for Wegmans grocery to begin selling beer, wine and 'hard' alcohol in it's supermarket cafes in six stores within Pennsylvania. But wait! The six stores in: Bethlehem, Dickson City, Lower Nazareth, State College, Wilkes-Barre and Williamsport probably will not be pouring you anything more alcoholic than near beer anytime soon.

Wegmans grocery store cafes are technically regulated as restaurants. That is where the problems begin. A restaurant in a grocery store is somewhat unique by Pennsylvania standards. See, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania you can not buy beer, wine or alcohol at the grocery store. Within Pennsylvania consumers are forced to buy beer from distributors who force purchase of an entire case (which who knows if you will even like the beer) or in bars where you can purchase a maximum of 12 beers at a time (at great cost). Wine, spirits and other hard alcohol are sold only at the Commonwealth's Wine and Spirits stores, a state owned and operated monopoly.

Speaking of monopoly beer sold in Pennsylvania is over 70% purchased from beer distributors. Beer distributors trace their gifted monopoly position all the way back to Prohibition and their monopoly is granted under Pennsylvania's outdated liquor licensing laws.

The Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania has taken legal action asking a Pennsylvania court to overturn the LCB's decision to allow Wegmans to sell beer. The MBDA's president David Shipula has been quoted as saying:

...Pennsylvania’s historic ban on beer sales where groceries or gasoline are sold... is good public policy that has been in place for 70 years ... some chains like Wegmans on the grocery side and Sheetz on the gasoline side have been finding loopholes in the law to co-locate beer sales with groceries and gasoline”.

The MBDA has also gone the legal suit route (with pending action in the PA Supreme Court) against Sheetz. Sheetz opened a new mega-store store concept with coffee bar, gelato, carved meat and lots of other food offerings. They included take-out beer in the concept, thus somehow finding a unique way to create a newly licensed category or otherwise open the door for convenience stores and supermarkets in Pennsylvania to sell beer. They were approved by the LCB to sell beer for takeout, proceeded to, then forced to stop now for a year pending appeal initiated by MBDA.

How banning beer sales of individual bottles, larger individual bottles and six packs at convenient locations like gas stations, grocery stores and convenience stores is a good policy is laughable. Sure it is good policy if you are a beer distributor in Pennsylvania because you are given a preferred monopoly status and a consumer base with no real choices where to buy from. Selling beer in convenience stores and at gas stations all across the United States for decades has not caused any epidemic, not contributed more to alcoholism, not created more driving and beer related fatalities.

What really is at stake here is money. With the craft beer industry churning along nicely with steady annual growth, with more folks trying the microbrews there is a larger pile of money being laid down for that case of brewsky and there are fewer dollars being spent on the macro beers. Beer distributors are going to fight beyond reason to protect their high end customers who are dropping 50%+ more on the microbrews versus the under priced macro beer. After the microbrew fans discover growlers at the local brewery, bottleshops, new places to buy beer right over the border of the next state - distributors in Pennsylvania will start to taste some of their own antics.

Win or lose, where you go to buy your beer is changing in Pennsylvania. The LCB is under fire and media establishments and politicians are discussing privatizing the Commonwealth's monopoly stranglehold on wine and spirits. So why should dissolving Pennsylvania's beer distributor monopoly not get the same treatment?

Posted by at 11:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
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