MA: wine sales in supermarkets?

If you can’t buy wine in your local supermarket, do you think you should be allowed? Massachusetts residents will be asked essentially that question on a statewide ballot initiative this November. If I were a resident of the Commonwealth, I would vote yes.

As crazy as it may sound to residents of California, Illinois or Florida, many states in the northeast still have laws that prohibit the sale of wine in supermarkets. Wine and spirits must be sold at spearate (but equal?) stores. Chains are prohibited in New York where licensees can only have one license in the entire state. Massachusetts is somewhat better with a maximum of three locations per licensee.

Here’s why I would vote yes on “question 1” on November 7:

1. Convenience. If you are going to have wine with dinner, you can’t get more convenient than buying wine where you are also buying the ingredients for dinner.

2. Price. The prices of high volume wines would come down. The Massachusetts Food Association, a trade group that is pushing the initiative, estimates that the reform would save wine consumers between $26 – $36 million. While it’s hard to say exactly how much it would save, it’s easy to tell which wines would benefit. If a consumer wants a branded commodity wine, then they should be able to get that at rock bottom prices. The large purchases of supermarkets and big box retailers would give them the clout to deliver those low prices.

3. End the stigma of wine as “different.” Wine has made significant inroads into American life in the past decade. For that to continue, it has to be easy to buy and at a good price. Selling wine next to cheese and not in a different store will continue this positive trend.

4. The big retailers will have increased clout in the market to offset the clout that the distributors crurrently wield.

5. Sales to minors will not increase as a group against the initiative suggests. It’s funny to see shopkeepers using this rhetoric since it is usually employed by the distributors. Many supermarket chains require any alcohol purchase to be done with an ID. Some even enter the ID number into the computer system.

6. Lest you think I am being too cruel on the “mom and pop” package stores, it will actually improve the small shops that survive. Instead of selling branded commodity wines with thin margins, they will be able to move more upmarket and sell premium wines with fatter margins. They will be forced to provide a better selection, better service, and better wine events than the supermarkets. And that will be a boon for the both the curious and the enthusiast wine drinker.

* * * * *

Question 1: Sale of Wine by Food Stores
This proposed law would allow local licensing authorities to issue licenses for food stores to sell wine. The proposed law defines a ““food store” as a retail vendor, such as a grocery store, supermarket, shop, club, outlet, or warehouse-type seller, that sells food to consumers to be eaten elsewhere (which must include meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, fresh fruit and produce, and other specified items), and that may sell other items usually found in grocery stores. Holders of licenses to sell wine at food stores could sell wine either on its own or together with any other items they sell.

Study hits wine sales ‘monopoly’ [Boston Globe]
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23 Responses to “MA: wine sales in supermarkets?”

  1. I live in Minnesota where it is also illegal to sell wine in grocery stores (however, some grocery stores have a liquor store right next to the grocery store building). I actually think it is a positive thing for Minnesotans, as our “mom and pop” wine shops (Solo Vino, France 44) and the larger shops (Surdyks, Haskells)flourish here and drive those shops to be creative in the classes and events they offer in order to stay competitive. When I return home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I do not notice a great difference in price of wine in a grocery store vs. Minnesota shops but what I do notice is a lack of wonderful, small wine shops for Milwaukeans to enjoy!

  2. I’m 99% behind your argument to vote yes on question 1. However, I believe there is more to the story than the Massachusetts Food Association would like us consumers to believe.

    First, let’s be realistic, the MFA is a trade group which primarily represents the interests of large supermarkets in the state of Massachusetts. It is the supermarkets that wish to expand their product offering to include the sale of wine and beer. Their primary motive is to maximize profits for shareholders by capturing a larger percentage of wine sales. If this action makes buying wine more convenient for the average consumer, than we consumers should consider ourselves fortunate that our interests are aligned on this one.

    However, Massachusetts wine drinkers need to search beyond the clamor of the opposing parties if we are to uncover the whole story. For instance, what happens to the variety of wine offered if supermarket sales cause smaller retail outlets, which generally offer more styles and choices, to close? This may be fine for consumers who like to slosh down Yellow Tail with their Swanson TV dinners, but I have an issue with any action that leads to a net loss of diversity in an industry which is already producing an increasing amount of homogenous, boring wine.

    Furthermore, it seems that Massachusetts Food Stores want to define convenience on their own terms. A yes vote on question 1 will likely result in an expansion of licenses for stores that sell food [i.e. supermarkets] beyond the current 3 license limit. Therefore, if you are one of the smaller, surviving package stores that has emerged from this ordeal unscathed, you can’t expand your offering beyond the state’s three license limit. In other words, it is still forbidden for an independent, innovative, and successful wine merchant offering a diverse selection of bottles to open more stores! If the MFA wants to truly improve the situation for wine consumers, then they should lobby for the removal of the three license limit for all merchants. This would create a truly competitive environment resulting in higher quality service, better selection, improved prices and more convenience for Massachusetts wine consumers.

    Unless the MFA wants to play fairly, I will be voting “no” on question 1.

    Brett V.
    Brookline, MA

  3. Thanks for your comments! I’ll take them in turn…

    The quality of wine shops in a given city is likely to the caused by a variety of factors. Sales at grocery stores may be one of those factors. But since, for example, Chicago and NYC both have great wine shops and supermarkets and chains are allowed in Illinois, there are clearly other factors at play. Some of these might include: cost of real estate (rents); local per capita incomes; amount of tourists; and something as vague as a “culture” of wine…

    In your example, even if wine and spirits retailers in Mpls don’t have to compete with supermarkets, they still have to compete with each other and some are offering niche wines (but how are the prices?). Undoubtedly there are some great shops in Boston too.

    Why does Milwaukee have fewer independent wine stores, as you suggest? Perhaps some combination of those other variables. It certainly has a longer history with beer.

    And then of course there’s the local distributor bottleneck that all the wine must pass through to reach any local market in the US…

  4. Brett-

    Thanks for your long comment. I agree that the MFA is certainly a commercial organization but I think that this indeed is an instance where their interests are aligned with the consumer.

    One thing that the MFA really should stop doing though is calling the 2,500 package stores “a monopoly.” A monopoly is a sole authority with market power; multiple holders of power are an oligopoly. But no successful oligopoly ever had that many participants. So it’s best if they adopted the “legally privileged position” of package shops in their rhetoric.

    Will some package shops close if supermarkets could sell wine? Probably. But hopefully just the bad ones. It really doesn’t take much to have better service and selection than most supermarkets. Look at Illinois and California that have lots of independent shops as well as supermarket sales.

    You make an excellent point about leveling the playing field about the number of licenses. Somehow I thought this was part and parcel. How can they grant supermarkets multiple licenses while limiting a specialty store to just three? I understand how this could be a dealbreaker for you. But hopefully if Question 1 passes, then the independent shop owners will band together and push to reform that inequality.

    btw, how did only 30 grocery stores come to have the right to sell wine? Are they all Trader Joe’s?

  5. Ahhh Dr. Vino–if we get wine in grocery stores in New York State, I might be out of a job! Long live separate but equal wine and liquor stores!!!

  6. Doctor V – In compliance with the MA state law, only 3 Trader Joes in the state sell beer and wine. These stores are in Brookline, Cambridge and Framingham. Very convenient for me of course!

  7. Ha anonymous 2, you probably work at a good store and have nothing to fear. Moreover, the idea is not in play in NY!

  8. Brett V-
    Aha, interesting! So how is the quality of wine in package stores in Brookline?

  9. Brett,

    I agree with you 100% about the three license law, but correct me if I am wrong, THAT vote is also coming very shortly. I also agree with Dr. Vino though. I would vote “YES” to both. I think that it is more likely that supermarkets carrying liquor will force Yellow Tail style package stores (which make up 99% of the liquor stores in MA) out of business and force other independent wine stores to be more creative with their wine selections. When I lived in Cambridge I shopped at Shaws for common groceries, Whole Foods for produce and Joe’s for daily wine (and other goodies) all in the same evening. Yes, I know I could have bought wine at Whole Foods, but I just can’t take their pricing seriously on daily’s when Joe’s is around the corner. If I wanted to get a special occasion wine I needed to walk down Mass ave. to the University Wine Shop, which, despite their size managed to stock some pretty interesting wines. When I first moved to Boston I really had to search high and low through many package stores to find one that actually sold a good bottle of wine. I HOPE (don’t mean to be malicious) that grocery stores selling bad liquor will dry up the “wine” store market so the ones remaining truly have some defining characteristics.

    I do think that the three license law is the bigger issue though. Now I live in Providence in a state that seems to have similar liquor laws to MA and have not yet been able to find a single store that sells a good bottle of wine. After anxiously waiting for the rumored Joe’s to move in it seems that they may also be without wine. If MA changes the laws maybe RI will follow.


  10. Very interesting post. I don’t think this will really impact me that much, unless wine prices do decrease. I live in Quincy, and all the food stores I shop in sell tons of wine. Plus there are numerous other large and small liquor shops close by as well.

  11. Wine in supermarkets will reduce choice for consumers in Massachusetts. If the small mom and pop shops are put out of business, the types of wines that I buy will be harder to find. Does anyone think that the supermarkets will carry anything other than high volume low cost wines?
    I am, against this question for several reasons. First, the local mom and pop shops are owned by people I know in my community. They have contributed to the little league, library fund and everything else. I have no idea who owns the Star supermarket in my town.
    Second, the question allows anyone whose primary business is food to sell wine. That means that every convenient store or big box store is eligible to sell wine. Do we really want the people who work in some of these places selling wine? Here in Massachusetts, there is a story about once every six months on how these people don’t card for underage tobacco sales. I can’t believe that they would card for alcohol any better. Most of these are minimum wage or close to it jobs and they don’t care.
    Lastly, I don’t buy this convenience argument. Quite frankly, with 2100 package stores in a small state like Massachusetts, if you can’t find a convenient place to buy wine, you probably shouldn’t be drinking.

  12. Tell me you’re not that naive Dr.? This has nothing to do with the large market chains providing a more conveinent service to their customers, this is just a very clever way to circumvent the three license system set up in Massachusetts. The grocers association has been trying for years to rid the three license laws here in Mass. Just having the “wine” question on the ballot was ingenious on their part. Let’s face it, wine has a much more sophisticated aura to it then beer or spirits. What percentage of the population actually votes? And of that percentage what are their demographics? Hmmm? I’d be willing to bet more middle to upper class is my guess. Do you really think the voters here in the state would have jumped at the idea of creating over 2000 new full package licenses to be made available? Short answer, no. But, as an individual who works for a beer wholesaler here in the state, rest assured, if the wine vote is approved, ask those same people how they are going to feel when beer is right alongside the wine in all those stores within one years time. How much longer after that do you think spirits will be there?

    Don’t you feel there are enough stores in the state to sell these products already? “Mom and Pop” stores will fall so fast their heads will spin. Even the larger full package stores will suffer. Pretty soon we will be at the mercy of these retail giants as to what we can and can not buy. Whichever and whomever pays the most for the displays, endcaps, and shelvespace. Those looking for the obscure and craft beers they love, good luck. Same goes for you wine enthusiasts. Hope your favorite wines come in 1.75’s or jugs. Perhaps they can interest you in a fine box wine?

    This new law will not benefit just those large grocer chains either. Gas stations, conveinence stores and the like will also be able to obtain these new licenses. I can just imagine how the selection will be at your local Mobil, Exxon, or Hess. Maybe you can grab a bottle at CVS when you get your prescription too?

    As I stated before Dr., I work at a BEER wholesaler. Beer is not the question on the ballot. We are all ( the beer wholesalers)putting alot of resources into trying to defeat Question 1. We do not feel this change in the current system will benefit anyone’s conveinence other than that of the newly licensed stores. The more stores they put out of business, the better their bottom lines become. That being said, if this vote goes through, mark it down and put it in the books, every one of my fellow beer wholesalers, will have to do a complete 180 and now have to push to get beer right next to that wine in all 2000+ new stores.

    So much for little Jonny riding his bike to the local corner store to get his baseball cards anymore. Maybe you can pick him up a pack in a 20+ person deep line at WAL-MART when you get your toilet paper, kitty litter, and oh yeah, your favorite box wine.

  13. I think you are all over thinking the problem. Some grocery stores want to pair good wine with good food, and yes, make a profit. There is nothing wrong with being profitable in this world – without capitalism where would we be? I for one would like to buy a nice wine along with the flavors I’m picking for dinner. Grocery stores won’t necessarily carry the “two buck chuck” wines and if they do more power to the people that like them (though I have to admit Charles Shaw at TJ’s is not that bad as a daily table wine if you drink daily). I don’t have time to set up an account now so this is anon but not on purpose – enjoy! I’m voting yes (I want my merlot with a nice butternut squash ravioli in cream sauce together at last!)

  14. I live in Illinois where it is LEGAL to sell alcohol in the grocery store. There are plenty of Mom & Pop liquor stores in business, and I continue to see new ones opening. There are also large chain stores like Binny’s & Sam’s Wine etc that are doing just fine competing with the grocery stores as well as the other liquor stores.
    The grocery stores here carry mostly the big named stuff, if you want something more exclusive, high-end, or if you just want more selection you go to the liquor store. Beer sales might drop for the Mom & Pop places…in MA but overall, if people are already in the habit of going elsewhere, it’s hard to break habits. Also, if the package store is around the corner, you may be more likely to just go around the corner than make the trek to the grocery store.
    And the argument that the grocery stores don’t know how to tell if someone is over 21 is so lame. I was 27, buying beer for my DAD and I got carded in the grocery store. As long as the staff is trained properly, they will know what to do. And in Illinois the fines if you get caught serving anyone under age are enough to make all the shops follow the rules and card everyone who walks in the door.
    Also, in IL you have to be over 21 to SELL liquor. So if I go to a cashier who isn’t 21, she has to call over her supervisor to run the bottle of wine over the bar code reader. The young cashier can’t even touch the bottle.
    As for convience…Yes, it is very convient for me to pick up a bottle or two while doing my usual grocery shopping. But for those who claim that people who don’t want to make an extra stop while shopping shouldn’t be drinking, isn’t this same “one stop shopping” concept that caused Wal-Mart to open the “Super” stores that sell groceries on top of the usual Wal-Mart fare? Those stores seem to be doing well. Consumers were happy with being able to do everything at one place. Did grocery stores go out of business because Wal-Mart started selling food? Not in my neighborhood. I still have the same selection of grocery stores that I had before Wal-Mart came to town. Do I shop at Wal-Mart? No, did I before they sold groceries? No.
    I believe the “serious” wine drinker who wants more selection will continue to shop at the package store, while the causual wine drinker, who is OK with the Yellow Tail, who usually couldn’t be bothered to make a second stop, will buy at the grocery store.
    Another thing to consider, the grocery stores are either going to have to add on to the existing store space, or take away from some of their food inventory to make room for the liquor. Either way that could be costly.

  15. Lets take another mom and pop out of the U.S. This law will put many stores out of business. Which includes knowledale sellers. Good luck finding one of thos 15 years old stock clerks to pick out a nice merlot with your dinner. Vote No, make helpful service more importand thatn conveniance. It starts with Wine, then beer, then Liquor. Many consumers want to keep the amount they consume private. Many people may have 2 people in the houseold who have 1 glass of wine with dinner. Thats two bottles a week, which in the public eye may seem excessive, their is a stigma with alcahol and consumption. By having friendly mom and pops it will still be seen as a classy part of our culture and not something to be put into a carriage alongside you coffe and cheese curls!

  16. I grew up in Oregon a state that does allow sales of wine in grocery stores. Grantend in the west you don’t have the insaine blue laws you have in the east. Quite honestly I found the selection of wines at my local grocery store on par if not better than many specality wine stores in Manhattan. Also in the wine secton they did employ a staff who is knowledgable about wine. True not all stores do this, and yes you can buy your favorite jug or box of wine at the drug store, but so what? Like many thinks if you want a certan quality of product you will have to go to a specality store. This is true with lots of products that there are no restrictions on. Also I doubt Mass. will allow hard liquor sales in supermarkets any time soon which will keep package stores open. Now if last call in Mass was a little later than midnight…

  17. Why must buying wine be convenient? I agree that wine has become a larger part of our eating and entertaining culture, but is buying wine that inconvenient now? I can’t drive 2 miles without passing a wine shop in Boston, and if I need something special I’ll make a special trip. The issues here are underage drinking and corportate greed. Half of all theft in retail is committed by employees, not shoppers. Think those teenagers working at the supermarket are going to take a bottle or sell to their friends? Guess again. More importantly there is no accountability for these big stores. If a mom & pop sells to a minor they have their doors closed for few days, killing their business. A grocery store, would have to suspend wine sales for that time. Big deal. I think would should try to hold onto one of the last independent retail businesses left. At least until WalMart owns us all.

  18. I am a Massachusetts liquor retailer. The wine ballot is not about convenience, it is about global food distributors buying their way onto the Massachusetts ballot to change the commercial code of one industry. The only purpose of this ballot question is to wipe out the existing liquor industry through predatory pricng and eliminate the wholesale tier to enhance the profits of the mega retailers. In the end the consumer will have nothing to show but a couple of thousand empty storefronts. We have not had marches in the streets of Massachusetts with mobs demanding more liquor stores. These are European corporations buying Massachusetts commercial advantages with high priced slick advertising. Here is the inside scoop, the supermarket study showed voters would not vote for beer and wine licenses which is what the supermarkets really want. But,the beer industry has already told the exisitng retailers that if the ballot passes the beer companies will demand the Massachusetts legislature to allow beer sales in these stores. Beer and wine are the heart of the profit centers for liquor stores. Once all the new licenses (2800 proposed) get beer and wine, the independant liquor store is cooked. It is facinating to me to see everyone waving the flag saying buy American, but when an Americna industry is under assault from foreign global mega stores American wine drinkers abandon their American brothers who have served them so well for seventy years. Watching the supermarkets and this web site dupe the Massachusetts voter into distroying the last of the independant retailers remainds me of the Twilight Zone TV program where space invaders convinced earthlings to get on their spaceship when humans thought a book brought to earth entitled, “How to Serve People” was about serving humans, when in fact it was about eating them!

  19. When I see a proposal like this, I ask myself, “What needs fixing here?” When I look at this ballot proposal, I see don’t see that anything will be fixed. In my town, there are two fine liquor store. Each is located less than one minute away from a large supermarket, one of which sells beer and wine! No doubt that part of the store is somehow considered a liquor store within the supermarket. I used to go to a supermarket near Coolidge Corner in Brookline that also had a liquor store within the store. So, there’s no significant “convenience” to be gained for me in proposal and, in the case of the supermarket mentioned, nothing will change.

    I do have a major concern with this proposal as a consumer of wine and beer. The large supermarket chains may well drive out some of the smaller liquor stores we love with big marketing campaigns that smaller retailers can’t afford and through predatory pricing a la WalMart and Home Depot (selling at below cost until the competition is driven out of business and then raising prices to more than the competition was charging). The small liquor store, like the small hardware store, contributes something to the consumer that a few price points can’t compensate for. I watched as the Home Depot’s drove my favorite hardware stores out of business years ago; I don’t want to watch my local liquor store meet the same fate for the sake of Star’s and Stop and Shop’s big shareholders.

  20. After reading in the Consumerist about the liquor store in Massachusetts that harassed its customers who asked for a specific beer, I think stores like The Wine Press in Brookline, MA could use the competition. Bring on the supermarket wine.

    Link to original story

    Link to followup phone call

  21. Obviously, I’m arriving way past the original date that this entry was posted, but wow, what an interesting forum this entry turned out to be. I’m still not sure exactly how I’m going to vote in a couple of days, but I was delighted to see so many opinions in one space. Hmmm… will have to check out the rest of this blog.

  22. Hi Kate,

    Thanks–I’m glad it turned out to be a useful discussion for you!

    I did weigh in one more time here.

    Needless to say, I agree with the Boson Globe editorial and encourage you to vote yes!

  23. Its ridiculous to deny consumers certain rights because certain businesses need protection. When i need to get vitamin C, I don’t want to have to go to GNC. When i need an exotic vitamin, or bulk vitamins or specialty vitamins or when i need more detailed information on vitamins then i go to a vitaminshoppe or GNC. Give me the choice. Specialty shops exist because they serve a niche. They shouldn’t be allowed a monopoly position.

    If grocery stores are not up to snuff in regards to policing wine sales, revoke thier licenses. Don’t use it as an excuse to deny consumers.

    Also, I didn’t see any liquor store owners complaining when MA allowed liquor sales on sunday. I am sure allowing them to open and sell hard liquor an extra day of the week had more devastating effects in regard to drunk driving, and other alcohol related crimes. I guess public safety isn’t a concern when it means less cash in liquor store owner wallets.

    This is about one thing, and one thing only, consumer rights vs big business. Liquor stores are big business, and they only care about their bottom line.


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