The Codcast: Buying booze the modern way

Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, the alcohol industry has been regulated by states, some with a heavy hand, others with a light touch. Over the years, as social mores and consumer demands changed, so have some of the laws.

Massachusetts, where Blue Laws ruled and buying booze on a Sunday is a 21st century idea, has been slow to uncork some of the stringent regulations that were designed to limit consumption and, in the process, limit competition.

Those rules, though, are being challenged by national chain Total Wine & Spirit, a newcomer to the state’s retail liquor industry with four stores open already and plans to open more. The big booze box store is looking to upend the state’s way of doing business in buying and selling alcohol much the same way Uber disrupted the taxi industry and Amazon is changing the way people shop.

“We’re advocates for the customer,” said Ed Cooper, vice president of public affairs for Total Wine, who joined The Codcast to talk about the company’s intent to overturn the state’s “arcane and archaic” liquor laws. “When retailers compete, the customers win… We’d like to make it more convenient for customers to benefit from price competition.”

Total Wine ran afoul of the state’s regulation barring retail sale of alcohol below the invoice cost from the wholesaler. The chain argued its true invoice cost should reflect volume discounts, but regulators disagreed, suspending the licenses of two of the company’s stores. Total Wine challenged the suspensions in court and won a ruling this summer that the price control regulations of the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission were “arbitrary and capricious.”

Cooper said the minimum pricing regulation is just one of several rules that hinder competition and leave consumers holding the bag. The company is also looking to expand Sunday hours, favors lifting the limit on store licenses, and wants to repeal the state ban on the use of coupons to buy liquor, saying that ban hurts retailers trying to foster customer loyalty.

Cooper insists the court system is not Total Wine’s first recourse when trying to alter regulations, though the company also sued unsuccessfully in Connecticut to gut that state’s pricing regulations. He says the company has hired lobbyists to work the halls at the State House and has joined a task force created by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg that is looking at updating the liquor laws.

One area on the horizon for the retail liquor industry is online sales for home delivery or in-store pickup. Cooper said digital is the trend in the business and his company is already ramping up to meet the new demands.

“That’s really where the industry is going,” he said. “Not everybody wants to shop between 10 and 6. You can already have delivery of groceries and toothpaste and long underwear.”

Cooper said his company has no interest in selling marijuana, even though lawmakers used alcohol regulations as a guide in setting up oversight for pot. “We like to think we’re good retailers of beverage alcohol and that’s where our focus is,” Cooper said. “But when I go to industry meetings, the opportunity to be able to sell marijuana has been front and center for many years. We’ve heard some anecdotal conversation from other retailers that some of their beer sales have been hurt by marijuana.”



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