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Thefts Cause Washington Grocers To Lock Up Alcohol

April 21, 2014

KIMA TV chronicles how a Washington State grocer's severe losses forced it to limit direct consumer access to alcohol at shelves. Consumers today buy at checkout, just like the system abandoned here 30 years ago. Grocers - not customers - like this.

Voters promised "convenience" get lock and key

Washington State voters bought a bill of goods that a new system, similar to what is being promoted here, would have better prices and "consumer convenience". Since the change, in order to cope with alcohol thefts from it's grocery shelves amounting to $800 to $1000 per week, Wray's Market of Yakima, WA, has taken the retailing of adult beverages back to the way they were conducted in Pennsylvania during the administration of Governor Dick Thornburgh. In 1978 Dick advocated the elimination of a system where consumers were treated poorly - one waited in line, gave the clerk a product number from a booklet, and waited again while the employee walked back into the stacks to retrieve the product. The process was similar to today's experience of picking up one's dry cleaning.

KIMA reporters said they reached out to several chain stores in the area to determine whether they had a theft problem with alcohol. "None wanted to be identified, but all said it was a significant problem," the reporter told viewers.

This is how it now works at Wray's. Facing mammoth losses, it adopted the growing supermarket practice there by installing locked cabinets so that customers must go to a clerk to make alcohol purchases.

KIMA reporters quoted the grocer saying, "they'll take what's easy to get". "Locked cabinets are among the security features that have been installed. Keeping empty liquor boxes on shelves is another method. Paying customers have to ask an employee to get the alcohol," they reported.

Cameras not enough, losses mount

The loss-besieged owner told reporters his grocery store has "always had cameras looking for criminals. But, that wasn't enough when we started selling liquor." This store declared victory over the thieves by reducing losses to $100 monthly, even though this is still considered a very high loss ratio by specialty retailers.

Specialty retailer reports no thefts

"We haven't had any problems with theft," reported Tricia Alvarado, manager of Good Spirits, a specialty retailer of wine and spirits in Yakima. Tricia told reporters her security is a little different than large grocery stores. "With us being a smaller independent store we are able to make eye contact and visit with everyone who walks in so I think that really helps deter theft," said Tricia. Unlike the grocery store, Tricia told reporters she doesn't worry about the bottles on the shelves. Her system and experience parallels that of beer distributors in Pennsylvania.

Wray follows other supermarket's lead

Other large grocery stores, such as the Safeway in Walla Walla, are now locking up the liquor in cabinets.

Grocers say "no" to police request for data

The shocking truth is that the grocery stores refuse to tell even the police the facts to evaluate the seriousness of the problem. Police have appealed to the legislature to get a law which would require sellers to release this data to local law enforcement officers. Grocery store owners have refused.

Convenience stores and alcohol create problems

Specialty liquor stores - unlike grocery and convenience stores -- are like Pennsylvania beer distributors, destinations for adult shoppers. Washington State voters rejected convenience stores selling alcoholic beverages, but allowed it in grocery stores. The U.S. Navy no longer allows its convenience stores to sell alcohol. Convenience stores in the southwest cause serious law enforcement problems. The police chief of Shippensburg just testified that a convenience store in his town which does not sell beer or wine is nevertheless the greatest single problem for alcohol-related crime such as DUI. About 25% of the DUIs were in it's parking lot.

Grocers admit selection diminishes

Selection (an aspect of consumer convenience) will be devastated in Pennsylvania with grocery and convenience stores selling alcoholic beverages, just as the Washington State grocers association admits is happening there. Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, is quoted as seeing reduced selection as an "inevitable result". "What the private market is going to do is find out what the customers want, and they aren't going to carry everything." Barnett, Liquor Privatization: The Fallout, Seattle Met, 8/21/12. Obviously, the need to "lock down" alcohol and to have busy employees stop running a register to go unlock a bottle is not going to be a positive experience for anyone, particularly consumers waiting in line. In Pennsylvania, beer distributors in the private market have about twice the brand selection of any grocery store in the same market niche.

The promised land - 1 step sideways, 2 backwards

Residents of Washington are thus seeing the promise of better prices and "consumer convenience" not coming to fruition but, as a matter of fact, getting worse and going back in time. Pennsylvania has an excellent private enterprise system of specialty retailers with little theft and thousands of outlets for beer. As Barnett concluded regarding Washington, even before the necessary inconvenience of putting retail alcohol under lock and key, "for now, though, the biggest winners appear to be the big-box stores that can buy and sell high-volume, popular bottles at a discount, while the smaller stores, and consumers, find themselves getting less and paying more."

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