In Tacoma, liquor hoarded amid price worries

Tacoma News TribuneMay 31, 2012 

At Washington State Liquor Store 105 on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, one customer recently checked out with more than $1,700 in merchandise.

Another, said store manager Nancy Dealba, bought more than $260 worth of whiskey, all in pint bottles, for his weekly card games.

Those and other customers have nearly stripped the store bare of spirits. They’re betting that while privatization of liquor sales in Washington will make liquor available at hundreds more locations, it won’t make it any less expensive.

That privatization, approved by voters last fall, happens at midnight Thursday.

Those customers might have made a good bet. Based on a News Tribune analysis of advertised liquor prices from two food chains that will join the throng selling spirits Friday, significant savings may be elusive. Some prices – even for the advertised introductory specials – are higher than the state has been charging at its monopoly network of stores.

A 750-milliliter bottle of Tanqueray gin is advertised by one grocery chain at $22.99. With the state’s 20.5 percent liquor sales tax and $3.77-per-liter spirits tax, that bottle will cost a customer $30.53 at checkout. The state’s stores are selling the same bottle Thursday – if in stock – for $24.95 including taxes.

A 1.75-liter bottle of Crown Royal whiskey, which costs $59.95 at the state stores, will cost $61.29 at one of the sampled grocers.

A 750-milliliter bottle of Skinnygirl prepared cocktails will set back a customer $16.07 at one of the grocers, compared with $15.95 at the state stores, all of which will be closed by midnight Thursday night.

Depending on the product, some savings are possible. A 1.75-liter bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, for instance, will cost customers $47.56 during one sampled store’s introductory sale. That compares with the state’s price of $50.95. The other sampled store’s 1.75-liter bottle of Rich & Rare Whiskey will cost $18.88 with taxes included. The same-size bottle at the state stores has cost $24.95.

Advertised prices can be confusing. Most of the newly privatized liquor dealers say they’re planning to advertise prices before taxes. Those taxes, added at checkout, can significantly add to the seemingly low shelf prices.

And it’s those taxes that the state is counting on to keep itself whole after it gives up the profits it has made since Prohibition ended. Mike Hargreaves, Stadium Thriftway co-owner, said he plans to post explanatory signs in his liquor aisle to let customers know how much of their ultimate purchase price will go to the government. Those signs, he said, might help customers, some of whom thought that getting the state out of the liquor business would cut prices, understand why prices haven’t fallen steeply.

At the Sixth Avenue store, which closed Tuesday night, Dealba predicted that some prices might be lower, particularly for store-brand liquors sold by big retailers, but most will be as high as or higher than at the state stores where she worked for 31 years.

Dealba, who is retiring in mid-June, said she thinks there still will be a niche business for the former state stores such as the one on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue.

A former clerk at the store, Michelle Tate, and her father, Teddy Rayford, bought the rights to the Sixth Avenue store in a state auction.

They plan to reopen the store about June 15.

Tate doesn’t expect that she’ll be able to beat big chains such as Costco and BevMo on price, but her prices will be competitive, she said.

She will beat them, she said, in customer service, convenience and selection.

The typical drug or grocery store might offer 100 types of liquor. Her store will offer about 300 items.

“I think people who just want to buy a bottle of liquor don’t want to line up behind a shopper with $400 worth of purchases at Costco or even $150 in groceries at Safeway,” she said.

Tate, a former Top Food and Drug manager who lost her job there in a downsizing two years ago, said she went to work last fall as a temporary clerk at the Sixth Avenue state store to help pay the bills.

She discovered she liked the sense of community the store offered. So when the state put the business up for sale along with dozens of others, she and her father, retired from Boeing, jumped in at the auction.

The auction went on more than an hour, with the second-highest bid falling just $200 short of theirs. With all fees and charges, they paid $354,000 for the store rights.

She’s spending the next two weeks sprucing up the store and bringing new stock including snacks and other party items that the state didn’t stock.

“I hope that this store will put me on a solid footing in retailing,” Tate said. “I’ve got two sons who are in retailing, and I want to leave a legacy for them, just as my father is doing for me.”

She plans to call the new store “Pops’” in his honor.

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