It is not surprising that local beer and wine stores are opposed to changing the law to allow supermarkets to sell beer and wine. It would be harmful to their business, and all businesses must be fiercely protective of their bottom line.
But that does not necessarily make it a bad idea.
The Frederick County liquor board heard from constituents who would like to see the law changed, and the board is considering recommending the change. It held a public hearing, and it is studying the experience of other counties in the state and others states in allowing beer and wine sales in grocery stores.
Gathering information is the right thing to do for any governmental body considering making or recommending a change to long-established law.
Maryland generally permits counties to decide how to regulate alcoholic beverage sales. Some, such as Montgomery County, permit beer and wine sales in a single store in a chain, such as one Giant supermarket. Other counties allow wider sales.
The national trend is to allow some alcohol sales in grocery stores, almost always beer and usually wine. By the count of one website, 41 of the 50 states allow some form of alcohol sales in supermarkets. Sales of hard liquor by grocers, however, is much less common.
It is not surprising then that consumers are increasingly asking local officials to allow such sales, usually as a matter of convenience. In today’s busy, hurried world, most consumers would like to have the option of making one stop to buy food and beer or wine.
At the liquor board’s recent public hearing, The Frederick News-Post’s Cameron Dodd reported, more than a dozen owners of liquor stores said they opposed the legislation. They told the board that allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine would destroy their businesses.
One food store manager, Bob Thompson of Common Market, in supporting the proposal, made a good summary of the argument in favor.
“Selling locally made beer and wine would be keeping with Common Market’s mission to sell local products,” Thompson said. “Our consumers come from a wide area, and they’re used to other states having beer and wine in grocery stores. We’re trying to be aware of customers’ needs and wants.”
Some liquor stores in the county have licenses that permit them to sell all kinds of alcohol, but others are limited to selling beer and wine. Those owners can make the strongest argument against the proposed change.
Bob Kannor, owner of Viniferous beer and wine store in Frederick, said his and other businesses would not last if they had to compete with grocery stores.
“I don’t think Common Market should sell beer and wine, because they’re going to put local stores like mine out of business,” he said.
On assessing this question, the board must basically decide whether its first responsibility is to the businesses that it regulates, or to the consumers who want to buy the alcoholic beverages.
We believe the correct answer is that its first responsibility is to the county’s consumers. We are not insensitive to the needs of the business owners, but we believe the board should first consider the wishes of consumers.
If beer and wine sales are permitted in grocery stores, though, the board could take steps to help store owners. For example, it could allow all beverage store owners to sell hard liquor that would not be allowed in supermarkets. Consumers looking to buy vodka or bourbon would still need to stop in a separate location, and many would use that occasion to buy wine or beer as well.
The proposed change would put pressure on beverage stores owners, requiring them to compete more vigorously with grocery stores. They might want to offer wider selection, better prices, faster service or more expertise on the part of their employees.
Beer and wine sales in grocery stores need not sound the death knell for smaller retailers, but they will need to give the consumer a good reason to continue visiting them. And the liquor board should help the beverage stores weather the transition by giving them the tools they need.
Board chair Debbie Burrell seems to understand the need to balance competing interests on this issue. She said the commission will consider comments from both supporters and opponents.
“We’re just at step one,” she said at the public hearing.