Legislators change strategies pushing for sale of wine in grocery stores

Supporters of bills allowing the direct shipment of wine and the sale of wine in grocery stores are changing strategies after being unable to see the measures passed in recent legislative sessions.

Next year, lawmakers hope to craft a bill that would loosen restrictions on current liquor stores, in hopes that doing so would cut opposition to their proposals.

In 2019, a bill that would have allowed customers to have wine shipped from manufacturers directly to their homes again failed to make it out of a House committee.

Meanwhile, the author of previous bills that would have allowed for the sale of wine in grocery stores opted not to reintroduce the measure in 2019, after receiving so much resistance from opponents during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

“We’ve been trying to take a bite out of that apple for years and haven’t been able to get anywhere,” District 117 Rep. Scott Delano said.

District 111 Rep. Charles Busby, author of the direct shipment bill, said the key to seeing the bills passed could be found in relaxing some of the regulations on existing liquor stores. He hopes to find a win-win compromise for all parties involved.

Bills in previous sessions would have allowed grocery stores to sell wine on shelves next to everyday produce and would have allowed individuals to order wine online and have it shipped directly to their homes.

Support for both measures has been building in recent years.

In 2016, Looking For Wine? was formed to lobby for wine sales in grocery stores. Other big box retailers, like Walmart, Kroger and independent grocers, have also come on board in support of the idea. 

Opposition to the two measures has also grown, with the Mississippi Beverage Merchants Committee coming on board to combat the ideas.

Supporters argue Delano’s measure would expand the presence of big box retailers, like Costco, in the state.

Right now, Mississippi has zero Costco warehouses, with one planned for Highland Colony Parkway in Ridgeland.

“I’ve had (retailers) come up and say, ‘We’re not interested in expanding in Mississippi until we’re able to sell wine in grocery stores,’” Delano said.

Until that happens, he says the state will still bring in some of the larger retailers, but will have one-off locations, rather than multiple locations throughout the state.

Many liquor store owners, though, are afraid allowing wine sales in grocery stores will hurt their business and equally important, cut down on quality choices for customers.

Tasho Katsaboulas, spokesman for the Mississippi Beverage Merchants Committee, said larger retailers would likely sell the cheaper wines, the same ones that current liquor stores rely on to make ends meet.

“Specialty shops will not be able to make it without these crucial sales,” he said.

Cheaper wines, or those that cost $15 a bottle or less, comprise around 90 percent of wine sales at local shops.

Owners sell those varieties, in part, so they can carry the more expensive, harder-to-find products.

“In the end, consumers who appreciate a broad selection of harder-to-find craft wines will be thoroughly punished so that other consumers can buy tank wines in every grocery store.”

Serena Flowers, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of Walmart, countered that argument, saying customers of the retail giant want the option to buy wine at their local grocer, not only their local package store. 

“I’m always getting feedback from customers, who ask, ‘why can’t we do this? In other states, we have the option to,’ ” she said. “We’re one of the last hold-out states.”

Local lawmakers have mixed opinions on the legislation.

District 25 Sen. Walter Michel said he supports the measures, as does District 58 Rep. Joel Bomgar, who calls the state’s current alcohol sales regulations obsolete.

“We’re essentially using Prohibition-era laws to regulate commerce in the Internet age. The law in its current form hurts businesses and consumers,” he said. “Getting rid of this obsolete regulation would help business growth and improve quality of life for Mississippians.” 

District 70 Rep. Kathy Sykes, though, opposes the measures, saying they would hurt small business.

“It would make some small businesses go under,” she said. The lawmaker also is worried that allowing direct-shipment of wine to homes would encourage underage and excessive drinking.

Currently, 38 states allow wine sales in grocery stores. Tennessee amended its alcohol statutes in 2018 to allow Sunday liquor sales in grocery stores as well. That amendment took effect on January 1, according to articles at WBIR.com.

Liquor stores’ concerns could be merited.

According to Little Rock television station THV, package store sales in the Natural State have declined since lawmakers there expanded the types of wines grocers could sell.

In 2017, Arkansas state law was amended to allow grocers, like Kroger, to sell wine from any size winery. Prior to the rule change, grocers could only push wines from companies that produced less than 250,000 gallons a year.

Since the expansions were put in place, sales at independent liquor retailers have fallen an average of 5.5 percent, THV reported.

“This is about complete market domination … limiting consumer choice, and ultimately destroying selection,” Katsaboulas said.

The Belhaven wine merchant went on to say grocery stores can already sell wine.

Under Mississippi law, grocers can peddle wine, but the wine must be in an area separated from the grocery store, and that area must have a separate entrance.

Restrictions are equally heavy on liquor stores. Those retailers can only sell liquor, drink mixes and limited amounts of glassware. Not even ice can be sold at those locations, under state statute.

Busby, author of legislation allowing for the direct shipment of wine, said the solution to getting his and Delano’s measures passed, could be found in relaxing current those liquor store regulations.

During the 2019 session, Busby’s bill, HB 708, which would have allowed for the direct shipment of wine to customers, died in House Ways and Means Committee. The measure was never brought up for a vote.

Busby’s next proposal will call for allowing direct-to-customer wine shipments, while at the same time loosen restrictions on liquor store sales and allow the transfer of liquor licenses.

“Currently, liquor store owners can only own one store. I’m expanding that,” he said. “The liquor licenses is non-transferable. It has no monetary value. I’m allowing owners to transfer it, which will give it significant monetary value.”

There are more than 600 licensed liquor stores in the state.

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