While the beverage alcohol retail tier typically prepares for a festive St. Patrick’s Day spirits surge in March, this year retailers experienced an unprecedented buying frenzy in the face of a global pandemic. “Our sales have increased drastically, in a way we usually only see around the holidays,” says Ike Wheeler, general manager of Wake County, North Carolina’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which operates a warehouse and 25 retailers. “The difference between now and the holiday season is preparation. We didn’t see this coming—nobody did. So now we’re scrambling trying to get stock back up.”
As conditions change, many retailers are seeing average sales increase, with customers focused on volume over value. “We’re seeing a lot of boxed wines going out,” says Mark O’Callaghan, owner of Exit 9 Wine and Liquor Warehouse in the Albany, New York metropolitan area, noting that people are simply grabbing well-known national brands. “There is not a lot of browsing—people are in and out of the store quickly. But the average ring is very high. Around the holidays, we usually get around a $75 ring. Last week was an $85 average ring. People are stocking up, but they’re not buying high-end items.”
New York and California state officials led the way for the industry by including beverage alcohol retailing as an essential business allowed to remain open in states of emergency. In New York City and Los Angeles, some retailers, nevertheless, chose to close their doors to foot traffic and are relying on online and phone orders and curbside pickup. Manhattan’s Astor Wine & Spirits converted to deliveries and in-store pickup of online orders only. In Los Angeles, The Wine House closed its doors and moved to online orders and curbside pickup.
Exit 9 reduced store hours by 20 per week, but overall sales remain normal. “The panic is settling,” O’Callaghan says. “We are trying to figure out how to best handle everything. We might cut hours back further. We might go to curbside pickup. It’s going to be a day-to-day decision.”
O’Callaghan also notes that online sales continue to surge. “We used to do four or five online orders a day,” he says. “Now we’re up to 50-60 online orders a day. It’s about 10% of our overall business.”
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam deemed the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) an essential service and stated they will stay open seven days a week. Beverage alcohol sales in Virginia from March 15-March 21 totaled just over $30 million, a 59% increase over the same week last year. Virginia ABC’s internet sales quadrupled last week with 1,500 online orders generating over $100,000. “Sales increases are occurring in all regions, with the highest increase occurring in the Northern Virginia and Richmond markets,” says Virginia ABC CEO Travis Hill.
Roll With The Punches
Pennsylvania is the only state to shut down its beverage alcohol retail tier and online sales. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) reported that sales of $29.9 million on Monday, March 16 are likely the highest ever for one day—although the state’s daily sales data only goes back 12 years. Prior to the sales surge related to Covid-19, the PLCB’s highest sales day over the last year was November 27, the day before Thanksgiving, at $19.6 million. Pennsylvania officials are re-evaluating the situation to determine if the state’s Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores should remain shuttered.
The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (Alabama ABC) has closed 78 state-owned liquor stores and kept 99 state-owned stores open during the Covid-19 crisis so far. It’s also authorized emergency curbside sales allowing on- or off-premise licensees to sell two 750-ml. bottles of wine, 1-liter of spirits, and a case (288 ounces) of beer per customer. In addition to nearly 200 state ABC retailers, there are more than 600 private liquor stores in Alabama. “We had an upsurge in sales the first day, but it tapered back to normal,” says LeNell Camacho Santa Ana, owner of LeNell’s Beverage Boutique in Birmingham, adding that the store is taking precautionary measures to protect its staff and its customers. “There’s lots of hand washing. We’re wiping down the counter and bottles with disinfectant every few minutes.”
Officials in Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, authorized a shelter in place order on March 24, instructing residents to stay home except for essential services. Liquor stores are allowed to stay open and the ordinance did not appear to impact business at LeNell’s. “Business Wednesday was steady but not rushed or overly zealous,” Camacho Santa Ana says.
In North Carolina, keeping liquor stores open has apparently helped calm nerves. “People were under the impression that we may close,” Wheeler says. “Now people realize that the ABC stores probably won’t close. It’s trickling off a little bit.”
Wake County’s 25 ABC stores have slightly cut their hours of operation, but business is thriving. From March 13-March 23, Wake County’s retail spirits sales increased 91%, and though mixed beverage sales to bars and restaurants decreased 88%, the result was an overall 53% increase in the spirits business. “We’re all in uncharted and unfamiliar territory,” Wheeler says. “This is new to everybody. What we’re doing today might not be what we do tomorrow, because we kind of just roll with the punches.”