Feb. 18--If there's one business group ready to pounce if Pennsylvania gets out of the wine and liquor business, it's retailers.
"We are certainly prepared, should the privatization proposal move forward, because we have the infrastructure to begin selling beer and wine in our stores," said Chris Brand, spokesman for Giant supermarkets. "We already do it in states where it's permitted by law."
The supermarket chain, which has several Lehigh Valley outlets, hosted Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley at one of its Reading area stores Thursday to spotlight Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal to close Pennsylvania's 600 state-owned wine and spirits stores.
If it passes, there will be lots of new places to buy alcohol. The plan would replace the stores with 1,200 wine and liquor retailers and expand beer and wine sales into supermarkets, convenience stores and retailers such as Target, Walmart and Costco.
Under the governor's proposal, supermarkets would be able to buy a license to sell up to a 12-pack of beer and six bottles of wine alongside the arugula, breakfast cereal and frozen dinners that make up their roster of offerings.
Giant isn't alone. Representatives of Wegmans and Weis markets said they may be interested in adding beer and wine to their list of product offerings.
"We are still studying the governor's proposal. But we support any effort that would give customers greater convenience and choice," Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said.
There are plenty of reasons besides healthy profit margins why grocers are itching for a wider ability to sell wine and beer, said Richard J. George, chairman and professor of food marketing at the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Wine in particular is a perfect product to pair and sell with food, he said. Wine and beer sales help increase traffic by giving people another reason to shop and set stores apart from the competition.
"You can do a nice [aisle] end-cap showing everything you need for an Italian dinner, a nice pasta and sauce, some bread, Parmesan, and now a really good bottle of Chianti," George said.
They're not completely new to the business. All three chains are already selling beer at locations where they have cafes and have been able to procure restaurant licenses.
"Customers appreciate the option of being able to purchase beer in these cafes. It is convenient for them and it saves them a trip and there is tremendous variety," said Dennis Curtin, spokesman for Weis Markets.
Weis is also selling beer and wine in states that allow it.
Corbett's plan would open beer and wine sales to every supermarket in Pennsylvania that obtains a license. It would also open the beer market to drug stores and convenience stores, giving chains such as Sheetz and Wawa the ability to sell six packs.
Louie Sheetz, chairman of the Pennsylvania Food Marketing Association and executive vice president of marketing at Sheetz, has praised Corbett's plan.
Association President David McCorkle said in a statement, "The Corbett plan for Pennsylvania is really an economic development initiative that will return wine, spirit and beer sales that are now going to Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Ohio and other surrounding states."
While sales of wine and beer would be broadly expanded, liquor sales would be limited to 1,200 specialty retailers. Many are expected to be holders of beer distributor licenses, who are eligible to bid on wine and liquor licenses that will be divvied up by county.
The rest would be stand-alone wine and liquor retail stores.
It's an area appealing to specialty retail chains such as Total Wine & More, which is poised to jump into the Pennsylvania market if it opens up, spokesman Ed Cooper said.
The company, which operates 85 stores across the country, has already opened three stores in Washington state, where wine and liquor sales went private in June.
"If we would be allowed to be in and compete, we would bring our model of customer-centric stores that are based on having the outstanding selection, over 8,000 wines, 3,000 spirits and 2,500 beers, many of them craft beers, imports, really cool stuff," Cooper said.
Beer distributors are not fans of the plan. They worry supermarkets, convenience stores and big retailers would chip away at their business.
"If you add the Walmarts and the Costcos and Sam's Clubs of the world, you will put those 1,200 beer distributors out of business," said Jeff Barber, a partner in Allentown's Wise Guys' Beer Depot.
Many beer distributors are family-owned businesses unable to raise the capital to compete at auction for wine and liquor licenses, Barber said.