Chang­ing Times

Arkansas liquor stores, gro­cery chains at odds on ex­panded wine sales

Texarkana Gazette - - OPINION -

Right now in Texarkana and other Arkansas “wet” ar­eas, gro­cery and con­ve­nience stores are al­lowed to sell what are termed “small-farm” wines, Those come from winer­ies that make no more than 250,000 gal­lons of wine an­nu­ally.

That may sound like a lot but it’s noth­ing com­pared to some of the big pro­duc­ers, which turn out mil­lions to sev­eral-hun­dred mil­lion gal­lons each year.

In or­der to get any wine from those winer­ies, which pro­duce some of the most pop­u­lar brands on the mar­ket, Arkansas res­i­dents and vis­i­tors have to go to a pack­age store. That’s pretty good for liquor stores. The num­ber of li­cense avail­able is lim­ited by pop­u­la­tion un­der state law, and that means they have what amounts to a mo­nop­oly on such wines.

A new law would change that and al­low gro­cery and con­ve­nience stores to start sell­ing those wines, and big-chain gro­ceries have sunk a bunch of money into stores in an­tic­i­pa­tion, But whether that money goes down the drain is up to a fed­eral judge.

As soon as Thurs­day, U.S. Chief Dis­trict Judge Brian Miller is ex­pected to make a rul­ing in a law­suit that would block im­ple­men­ta­tion of Act 508 of 2017—at least for a while. And pack­age store own­ers and gro­cers alike are on pins and nee­dles wait­ing for his de­ci­sion.

Liquor store own­ers say the act is un­fair be­cause it al­lows gro­cery and con­ve­nience stores to op­er­ate with­out the strin­gent re­quire­ments placed on pack­age stores. They are also wor­ried about the competition and the chains’ abil­ity to buy in bulk, un­der­cut prices and make up the dif­fer­ence with all the other items they are al­lowed to stock.

At­tor­neys for the gro­cery chains say that un­like their clients—who are lim­ited to beer and wine sales— pack­age stores can sell hard liquor, which mer­its the greater scru­tiny. They also point out that un­der the new law they can­not have more than 20 per­cent of their prof­its from al­co­hol and that they can­not group to­gether to buy wine at a dis­count. The same whole­sale price ap­plies to both pack­age and gro­cery stores, and each in­di­vid­ual store can only buy for its location. So, what will the judge de­cide? If the act is up­held it will be a blow to liquor stores—es­pe­cially here in Texarkana, where their long-held mo­nop­oly on most booze has been gut­ted over the years by le­gal­iza­tion in for­merly dry counties on both sides of the state line.

But the act was clearly meant to al­low gro­cery and con­ve­nience stores to start sell­ing all sorts of wines. The time to fight it was be­fore it was passed. Now the deed is done.

We un­der­stand the plight of the pack­age store in­dus­try. But in truth its mo­nop­oly all those years was a prod­uct of at­ti­tudes about al­co­hol that have greatly changed. The law hasn’t kept up.

Per­haps the best course would be to al­low the act to go into force as in­tended—and for the Leg­is­la­ture to con­sider loos­en­ing re­stric­tions on the pack­age stores so they can bet­ter com­pete.

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