The Thirsty Beagle: Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma files own petition

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma files own petition

What was that I said on the blog Tuesday about numerous twists on the way to alcohol law reform?

Chalk up another turn in the road as the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma late Tuesday announced it had filed its own initiative petition on the matter.

The measure, which would be known as State Question 785 if it were to make it on to the November ballot, would call for some similar ideas as spelled out in Senate Joint Resolution 68 and the initiative petition filed by Oklahomans for Modern Laws.

Included in the RLAO petition:

-Cold beer and wine in liquor stores
-Strong beer in grocery and convenience stores
-Grocery stores could get licenses to sell wine (I'll revisit this one in a minute)
-Oklahoma breweries can distribute their own products to package stores
-Oklahoma breweries can sell/serve their own beer for on-premise consumption or take-home growlers
-Liquor stores could hold tastings in their stores
-Liquor stores could sell grocery items, as long as such sales didn't exceed 20 percent of total sales
-A portion of licensing fees from retail outlets would be directed to the ABLE Commission and the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Some good things included in there, especially as far as craft beer is concerned.

Unlike SJR 68, the petition does not delve into issues of distribution. I spoke at length on Tuesday night with Bryan Kerr, owner of Moore Liquor and leader of the RLAO, and he said they felt like they wanted to leave those issues up to the Legislature and the state's distribution companies to figure out.

There's another item, however, that separates the RLAO petition from SJR 68 -- and it's no small issue.

The RLAO petition would allow companies or corporations to apply for one retail wine license, and then to purchase up to three additional retail wine licenses.

OK, let's put that in real terms: That means that Walmart or Homeland, for example, would be able to hold no more than four retail wine licenses. To take it a step further, that means that only four Walmart locations in the state would be able to sell wine at one time.

Wine would not be allowed in convenience stores.

I feel like this raises some obvious issues. For example, consumers might think it's unfair that the Homeland on the other side of town can sell wine, but theirs can't. After all, if a big part of this -- like everyone says -- is providing convenience for consumers, it doesn't really seem fair to provide convenience to only some consumers.

Kerr said RLAO believes the limit on retail wine licenses would serve two purposes: protecting public safety and protecting local small businesses.

The public safety argument, to sum up, is that less points of sale leads to less access to alcohol for those who shouldn't have it.

The local business angle is also pretty straightforward. I don't think anyone would argue that allowing every grocery and convenience store in the state to sell wine would hit liquor stores tremendously hard. They'd be losing out on a huge chunk of sales, no doubt.

The RLAO petition would clearly help protect the state's liquor stores in that regard. Kerr and I engaged in a very healthy discussion on this point. I asked a lot of questions, like...

1.) Why should liquor stores get protection that other retail businesses don't?

2.) Why should we care if liquor stores with poor selection and poor customer service go out of business?

3.) Won't liquor stores still get business from people who want a better selection of wine and beer than what the grocery store would offer, and not to mention liquor?

4.) Is it fair to tell a retailer like Walmart that only four of its stores in the whole state can sell wine?

To his credit, Kerr fielded all these questions (and to be clear, I'm not anti-liquor store. I love my liquor store people and I hope they're very successful in their businesses. I'm pro asking what I feel like are some obvious questions that people would have).

To No. 1, Kerr responded that liquor stores are playing by the rules set in front of them now, and switching up the laws would be akin to pulling out the rug. He acknowledged that there was never any guarantee that the rules would never change, but that opening the floodgates would potentially shut hundreds of stores down, thus limiting availability of good craft beer and wine for consumers.

No. 2: There are plenty of liquor stores already that have gone out of business due to poor selection and customer service.

No. 3: Liquor stores will still get business from people who, like me, want more exclusive beers and want someone to be able to explain which Shiraz is smokey and which one is earthy, etc., but they will no longer get the customer who wants Barefoot and Bud Light Platinum -- and those people make up a big portion of sales.

No. 4: Yes, they believe it is fair. Plus, stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's -- because of their limited number of locations (read: four or less) -- would likely be able to have wine sales in all their stores.

Whether you agree or disagree with the RLAO's positions, and its petition in general, my discussion with Kerr on Tuesday served to reinforce something I've thought all along: the plight of the liquor store in alcohol law reform is one of the most intriguing facets of this whole deal.

I've talked to a store owner who is worried that incurring the cost of installing coolers at the same time they have to see a big chunk of their wine sales go out the door would be a difficult pill to swallow.

On the flip side, I talked to one owner who said the bigger liquor stores would actually see boosts to their business if wine is widely available in regular stores. The theory there is that if smaller liquor stores go out of business, the remaining stores would scoop up additional customers who want spirits and high-end craft beer and wine.

Clearly there are not a lot of easy answers here, and that's why in less than a month we've already seen a legislative measure, an aggressive multimedia campaign aimed at defeating that legislative measure, two initiative petitions and two legal challenges. And I don't think it's a far stretch to assume the likes of Walmart will file a challenge against the RLAO petition before long, either.

Sit tight everyone. It appears we're in for a wild ride.

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