The hard stuff hits grocery shelves in Clark County

Change in state law opens way for private liquor sales

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Hard liquor made its sales debut Friday, as Clark County grocery stores unveiled shelves of glass and plastic bottles in shades ranging from jewel-toned blues to frosted whites and smokey-brown hues.

The array seemed to intoxicate customers and conjure up images of profit among area retailers on the first day of Washington's voter-approved privatized liquor sales. Excitement, novelty, and a bit of price confusion accompanied the new law, which went into effect Friday, the result of Initiative 1183 that passed in November.

"I had one lady say, 'Now I can buy my detergent and liquor in one stop,'" said Lindsey Knowles, a loss-prevention manager for Fred Meyer at the Grand Central shopping center off Grand and Columbia House boulevards.

About 76 Clark County grocery stores, pharmacies and large retail outlets have applied for state licenses to sell thousands of spirits, a branding term favored by retailers that seems to be softening and repackaging once hard-edged terms for alcohol. Expressions such as booze, the hard stuff, fire water, rot gut and hooch were once used forthe bottles sold in those tiny, out-of-the-way state-run liquor stores.

Now smart retailers are putting a new spin on hard liquor, and shoppers are forced to reconsider their perceptions, as well.

Some customers seemed shocked to see a half grocery aisle of shelves stocked with brands of whiskey, vodka, dark rum and tequila at Fred Meyer.

"It's like any change. It's a shock at first, then people acquiesce and get used to it," said Kevin Anderson, 28, who shopped Friday at Fred Meyer for liquor as a housewarming gift for a friend.

Area retailers expect the law and the new category of merchandise will only enhance store sales. The accuracy of that prediction seemed evident by noon at the Grand Central Fred Meyer, said Kimberly Hall, the store's acting manager.

"It's doing well," Hall said after running a mid-day sales total for liquor, which was officially available at the 7 a.m. opening of the chain's eight Clark County stores.

Hall expected liquor sales to increase into Friday afternoon and evening, typically the busiest hours for the store that's on a going-home route for many Clark County commuters.

"I think tonight will be telling," Hall said Friday.

Other retailers said the new law will help their stores grow in variety while maintaining store standards. New Seasons, for instance, said it will specialize in spirits from local distillers.

"What I think we see is an opportunity to support the Pacific Northwest's growing craft distillery industry," said Amy Brown, a spokeswoman for New Seasons Market, a Portland-based organic grocery chain that operates one Vancouver store. Meanwhile, consumers were trying to figure out whether privatization would give them a price break from the state-run liquor system.

As retailers jockeyed for position with advertising campaigns, Clark County residents were out comparing prices and sharing information at local stores Friday.

"It's a lot cheaper here," Amanda Turizliatto said to husband Adam Turizliatto as the couple browsed an east Vancouver Walmart's liquor aisle.

Pointing to a 750-milliliter bottle of Sailor Jerry's rum, Amanda Turizliatto said Walmart's $18.64 price beat the $21 price she last paid at a state-run liquor store.

"I'm excited about seeing (liquor) in regular stores," said the Vancouver resident, a transplant from Arizona, one of many states where liquor is sold by private retailers.

With Washington's new law, the number of states with state-controlled liquor stores has dwindled to seven, including Oregon. There are 18 states that hold a monopoly over all liquor control, directly involved with wholesale, distribution and sales. The other states require sellers to only obtain a state license to sell the hard stuff.

However, Turizliatto admitted she wasn't sure about the liquor taxes being tacked on at the register, taxes that were already added into the shelf price at the old state liquor stores, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

"They (the taxes) haven't changed since state control. They are still a 20.5 percent sales tax plus a (flat) $3.7708 per liter," Smith wrote in an email Friday.

What has changed, he said, is that the taxes were already added into one set shelf price for each item in the old state-run liquor stores, which added nothing to the total at the checkout stand.

The difference with private sales, Smith pointed out, is that the retailers show a shelf price, then add on the 20.5 percent sales tax and $3.7708 per liter tax at check out.

That could add as much as $9.98 to a bottle of liquor costing $10.99, according to an example posted on a customer sign board at Fred Meyer.

That didn't seem to be deterring the store's liquor sales Friday, which could have been spurred by impulse customers who saw the new items, said Cameron Loomis, 23, who also was shopping Fred Meyer's liquor aisle Friday.

Loomis planned to buy one bottle of whiskey and one bottle of vodka.

"I don't usually drink liquor. I came to buy beer and wine, but then I saw this," he said. "It's the novelty."

Loomis was among a set of younger adult shoppers on Friday who were all to talk about buying alcohol at the grocery store.

By contrast, a large number of middle-aged and older adults would not talk with The Columbian about buying alcohol.

On Friday, a quick review of prices found that 1.75 liters of Black Velvet whiskey was priced at $15.09 at Safeway; $13.59 at Fred Meyer; $19.47 at Walmart and $18.99 at Walgreens, all before tax. The same product and size formerly was priced at $26.45 in state-run liquor stores.

Those prices could be tested within the next 60 days, predicted Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, who said he has been closely watching the voter-approved issue.

"Keep in mind that in the opening days of the new process, there are likely to be all kinds of deals to entice folks in," Guard said in response to a story in The Columbian. "Prices are all over the board for the same products. Time will tell."

Others say customers who are looking for convenience will gravitate back to the former state liquor stores. Most have been now auctioned off to a new set of entrepreneurs who expect to revamp the sites to offer lower prices, larger selections and mixers, said Raj Johal, a business consultant who on Friday was helping to set up one of five stores purchased by a single owner.

He could not say when the Vancouver store would open in the Safeway-anchored retail complex at Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard and 136th Avenue.

"We'll have a much bigger selection, lower prices and personal service," he said.

Liquor in Clark County

Many grocery chains and other retailers became "spirits retailers" on June 1, when the state got out of the liquor business as directed by the voters with last year's passing of I-1883. The map shows all of the initial license applicants in red. Former state-run liquor stores, now mostly in private hands, are shown in blue and contract-run stores in green.