Saturday, July 21, 2018
Business

Walmart-backed bill would allow grocery stores to sell spirits

Two things people learn quickly upon moving to Florida: In most counties, you can't buy alcohol bright and early on Sundays and, if you want the hard stuff any day of the week, you have to go to a liquor store.

Since the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s, Florida law has prevented grocery stores from selling spirits unless they have a separate store with its own entrance. Hence, all these small liquor stores attached or next door to a lot of major grocery stores and even Walmart.

Some lawmakers say that's ridiculous, cumbersome and archaic. Why, in this age of convenience, should customers have to go to two stores for their dinner and night cap. Doesn't rum belong with rump roasts?

Republican legislators Sen. Bill Galvano of Bradenton and Reps. Jimmie Smith of Inverness and Greg Steube of Sarasota have filed bills that would eliminate the separation rules. The legislation is backed by Walmart and Target, big box retailers thirsty for alcohol sales. It has been referred to committees but hasn't been heard.

Understandably, the bills are driving small liquor store owners to pour a tall one. And another. And another. Who would need the mom and pops if shoppers could buy everything under one roof?

"It would really take away from the little guys,'' said Jeannine Robinson, a bartender at the Hub in downtown Tampa, which has a package store that's open until 3 a.m.

Charles Bailes, CEO of Orlando-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, said the implications go far beyond money. Selling spirits the next aisle over from cereal creates an invitation for underage drinking. As we all know, a bottle of whiskey just isn't the same as a bottle of beer.

"The issue is how easy do we want to make it for teens to get liquor,'' he said. "When you increase access to minors, you increase abuse and all the things that come with it.''

Even the best identification systems at checkout aren't foolproof, he said. Teenagers are sneaky, especially when eager to party. In the vastness of a grocery store, minors might be tempted to stuff a fifth of Jim Beam down their shorts or take a few swigs then hide the rest behind a bag of chips. In a smaller liquor store with mostly adults, they might not have the opportunity nor the nerve.

"When a minor walks into our store they stick out like a sore thumb,'' said Bailes, who is lobbying hard against the bill. "When they walk into a grocery store, they belong.''

A quick trip down memory lane, and it's not hard to see his point. If there's a will to drink, there's always a way. Make it easier and you're asking for more trouble.

Consider who works at stores selling alcohol. ABC, for instance, doesn't employ anyone under 21, except in their main office, while many grocery stores employ teenagers. Can you really expect an underage stock boy to keep a watchful eye on the liquor aisle?

Floridians for Fair Business Practices, a Tallahassee group promoting the legislation on behalf of Walmart and Target, said concerns related to underage drinking are unfounded. Spokeswoman Christina Johnson said grocery stores that already sell beer and wine have rigorous training and security measures in place and can't afford to get lax.

Ending the separation rule would eliminate unnecessary regulation, improve customer convenience and encourage more competitive pricing. Florida is one of just 16 states nationwide to have the requirement.

"We're just looking at it as a common sense law,'' she said. "People have access to alcohol right now, whether they go in one door or another.''

The stakes are high. Hard liquor brings in loads of money for stores, largely because the prices are higher than other products. Take away some of that business, and you take away a big chunk of revenue.

Notably, Publix hasn't taken an official position on the issue but has got to be watching it closely. It knows from experience that Walmart isn't content to coexist peacefully. It wants a bigger share of the market, whether it comes to selling jars of jelly or bottles of gin.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.

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