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From Michigan to Kansas, alcohol sales up

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

With states shut down and stay-at-home orders in effect as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many liquor and beer stores throughout the country have seen an uptick in sales.

Our reporters reached out to businesses in five states this week to gauge just how much those alcohol sales have ticked up and, at least in the case of Pennsylvania, how the state is dealing with an intense demand for spirits after only recently re-opening its liquor businesses via a curbside service model.

MICHIGAN

In Michigan, alcohol sales in March increased dramatically over 2019 numbers, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission reported.

In March 2019, alcohol sales clocked in at $109.1 million, while this past March, they climbed to $123.8 million, an increase of $14.7 million. January and February numbers were also higher than last year, but not by as much as March, the month when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implemented her Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order, which required many liquor stores to close.

Establishments that serve hot meals and deli food were able to remain open through the order, and grocery stores across the state continued to sell alcohol.

The closure mandated all bars and restaurants close their dine-in services effective at 3 p.m. on March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, which is typically one of the busiest bar holidays of the year. On Friday, April 24, Gov. Whitmer extended the state’s stay-home order until May 15.

In a March 16 press release, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission reminded holders of its 19,000 liquor licenses to strictly adhere to the order, or be subject to penalties of the Liquor Code, including suspension or possible loss of their liquor license.

“Licensees have a responsibility to take all necessary steps to minimize the risk and combat the spread of the coronavirus in their communities all across Michigan,” the release stated. “We understand that these decisions will impact the way we do business, but the decisions we make now will allow us to get our economy back on track sooner rather than later.”

April was Alcohol Awareness Month, and the liquor control board reminded consumers to stay safe and use moderation.

“During this time of coronavirus, be careful of excessive drinking because it can compromise a person’s immune system,” said MLCC Chair Pat Gagliardi. “Moderation is important. Don’t underestimate how much you have actually been drinking.”

Still, according to an April 2 press release, alcohol consumption was rapidly rising, despite the cautions put forth by state officials.

OHIO

John Hipp, the sales manager of Maple City Ice, a beer distributor in Norwalk, Ohio, said nearly half his business’ accounts are closed at the moment. There have been nearly no draft beer sales, as all of the bars and restaurants in Ohio are closed. While restaurants may offer carryout services, which includes alcohol sales, Hipp said those sales account for less than 5 percent of his sales.

“We had a huge buy up when they first announced the closures,” Hipp said. “It’s tapering off. The pantry loading has slowed down.”

Sales for supermarkets, however, have ticked up. Hipp said that larger national brands have been selling more and selling in bigger cases.

“It seems like ever since the start (of the shutdown, consumers) went back to the mainstay brands and bigger packs,” Hipp said. “They’re going for bigger cases of the main brands.”

Dave Hisey, a Miller’s Market store manager in Norwalk, said beer and liquor sales “certainly haven’t decreased.”

He said the store has seen an increase in sales in all departments, not just alcohol. He then went on to explain that liquor and beers sales have increased proportionality with the rest of the store.

Overall, Hisey said people have been responsible about their purchases and haven’t hoarded alcohol.

PENNSYLVANIA

In the Keystone State, it’s difficult to get through to a local liquor store over the phone because most are offering a curbside pickup service and their lines are constantly busy.

For weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvanians only had access to beer and wine, as Gov. Tom Wolf had shut down state-regulated liquor stores, deeming them non-life-sustaining businesses. After five dry weeks, the state’s Liquor Control Board opened more than 100 Fine Wine & Good Spirits locations for curbside service April 20.

Four days later, the LCB expanded the curbside service after recognizing the huge demand. There are now 565 liquor stores open across the state, according to a list published on the LBC’s website.

“We acknowledge that Pennsylvanians are frustrated with busy signals and want broader access to wine and spirits, so after learning from our experiences this past week, we’ve made improvements to process orders faster, expand the hours we take orders by phone, and be more flexible in scheduling pickups, even the same day, if pickup appointments are available,” LCB Chairman Tim Holden said.

The stores are accepting calls as early as 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and pickups can be scheduled until 6 p.m. Customers are limited to six bottles and one online or phone order per day, but many customers are still struggling to get through the busy phone lines.

“We’re aware that people are still continuing to get busy signals,” said Shawn Kelly, an LCB spokesperson. “We ask that customers remain patient.”

Since starting the curbside service April 20, unaudited sales figures, which include liquor and sales taxes, have reached about $14.8 million across the state, Kelly said. Online orders, for which purchase can be delivered to homes or businesses, have almost tripled since last year, he said.

From July 2018 to June 2019, the PLCB sold 39,042 online orders, bringing in just under $5 million. From April 1 to April 29 alone, they’ve sold 109,661 online orders bringing in just under $10.5 million.

“We knew there would be tremendous demand,” Kelly said.

KANSAS

In Lawrence, Kansas, a college town that’s lost much of its student population, liquor stores that rely on student sales are facing a greater struggle.

Bishwa Sherchan, manager at Everest Liquors, said that sales have been down but he believes the store will survive. He is, however, worried about what might happen if the University of Kansas does not welcome students back this fall.

“KU is the blood of our business,” he said. “When KU is on everything goes up. When KU is not here, everything goes down.”

While Everest Liquors has been struggling, two other liquor stores in town have seen increased sales during the current pandemic.

Scott Schmidtberger, the manager at Alvin’s Wine and Spirits, said there was a panic buying spree that occurred in the last two weeks of March, when people were unsure whether liquor stores would be deemed essential. But that increased revenue stream didn’t trickle out come April.

“We thought it would slow down in April and it turns out it didn’t slow down,” Schmidtberger said, noting that sales have gone up “significantly.”

Kyle Burke, owner of Myers Liquor, said sales also have been up at his store. He’s missing out on wholesale business to local restaurants and bars, but that’s been offset with general retail sales, he said.

Myers Liquor has a drive-through service, which is part of the reason Burke believes the business is doing well financially.

Burke and Schmidtberger both noted that they’ve seen an increase in bulk purchasing, from 24-packs of beer to boxed wine.

WEST VIRGINIA

At the direction of Gov. Jim Justice, the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration temporarily suspended regulations prohibiting the sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption. Home delivery of sealed beer and wine products in sealed bottles, cans and growlers are also permitted if certain requirements are met.

The financial impact on businesses selling beer, wine and liquor is not yet known, but West Virginia Retailers Association President Bridget Lambert said that, in general, wholesale business has decreased while retail sales has increased.

She attributed that to restaurants and bars being closed to all but takeout and delivery services, meaning more people bought their alcoholic beverages from stores rather than drinking at those venues.

“We didn’t see a vast change,” Lambert said. “There’s not tremendous losses anywhere or tremendous gains.”

Parkersburg’s North End Market specializes in liquor, wine and beer as well as tobacco products and some grocery items. Liquor manager Alex McDowell said they’ve seen a significant uptick in business during the state’s stay-at-home order.

“They have been exponentially buying more,” she said. “We’ve seen increases across all categories, but double-digit increases on … beer, liquor and wine.”

They still get one delivery a week of liquor from the state ABCA, but “our orders have nearly doubled from what we would normally be having this time of year,” McDowell said.

There’s also been an increased interest in craft beers while more people are at home and unable to go to their favorite watering holes.

“People are willing to try something new,” McDowell noted.

Editor’s note: Staff writers Katie Anderson, Lauren Fox, Evan Bevins, LynAnne Vucovich and Darby Hinkley contributed to this report.

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