Markets Face High Stakes to Match Across-the-Border Beer Sales
DaParma, Ron, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Beer on supermarket and convenience store shelves and liquor sold in privately owned stores in Pennsylvania? Not yet.
Efforts by Sheetz Inc. and Wegmans Food Markets Inc. to sell beer in some stores could be the harbinger for Pennsylvanians thirsting for convenience when they shop for beer, wine and booze. But those efforts face continued resistance from industry and trade groups.
The stakes are high. The alcohol industry employs thousands and generates billions of dollars for bars, beer distributors and the Commonwealth, which began regulating the industry when Prohibition ended 75 years ago through the Liquor Control Board.
The beer industry alone accounts for 42,760 jobs, almost $1 billion in wages and more than $2.69 billion in total economic impact, according to BeerServes America.org, an Internet site sponsored by leading brewers and distributors.
That matters little to consumers like Stephanie Findley, a former Sewickley resident, who shopped last week for an imported Swedish vodka at a Shop 'N Save Supermarket in Weirton, W.Va., just over the Pennsylvania border.
"It's much easier when you can buy everything in one store," said Findley. "This is fast and easy and things are easy to find."
Before Findley moved to Weirton about six years ago, she would have needed two trips to buy groceries and liquor.
West Virginia permits sales of beer, wine and alcohol in stores. And that draws some Pennsylvanians who live nearby to stores like the Shop 'N Save in Weirton, said Dave Yencsik, supervisor for the Weirton store and seven others owned by the Duritza family in both states.
Efforts by the Liquor Control Board to bring beer to grocery stores in Pennsylvania are in the courts. Trade groups have challenged licenses issued to a handful of stores operated by Altoona-based Sheetz and Wegmans of Rochester, N.Y.
That's no surprise to state Sen. Sean Logan, D-Plum, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
"Any time you try to make changes to the liquor code, there are always consequences because we have a multiple-tiered system," he said. "Even within the segments of the industry, whether you are talking about the taverns, or the restaurants, or the beer distributors or the wholesalers, they are not always on the same page."
Logan said he supports the Liquor Control Board's decision to permit Sheetz to sell up to two six-packs of beer at a prototype convenience store in Altoona. He favors the license granted to Wegmans to sell beer in six stores it operates with restaurants. Logan likes the customer convenience.
"I don't see any problem with those folks being able to sell six- packs and even offering customers a glass of wine with dinner," he said.
That is not the way the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania sees it. The trade group, which represents 475 beer distributors, likes the status quo. It views the Liquor Control Board's efforts as a threat to the livelihood of 1,300-plus beer distributorships that operate in the state.
"If there were a groundswell of opinion favoring free-and-easy access to beer, don't you think the Legislature would have changed the law by now?" said David Shipula, president of the Malt Beverage group, in an opinion piece on its Internet site.
Opinion polls conducted for the trade group contend about half of Pennsylvanians oppose expanded beer sales. Some fear an expansion of underage drinking.
"We firmly believe that the liquor code never intended to allow beer to be sold in bulk by grocery stores and convenience stores," said Mary Lou Hogan, executive secretary the Philadelphia-based group.
The Supreme Court is mulling the trade group's challenge of a license issued to permit Sheetz to sell beer in the store in Altoona. Only an appeal of a Commonwealth Court ruling -- which rejected the license -- allows the Altoona store to continue beer sales. …