With Pa liquor stores closed, consumers are flocking to the border

Stacy Wescoe//April 9, 2020

With Pa liquor stores closed, consumers are flocking to the border

Stacy Wescoe//April 9, 2020

Many Lehigh Valley residents are crossing the bridge into New Jersey where liquor stores are still open to buy spirits. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

An Allentown man, who asked to not be identified, admitted he broke down and crossed state lines when he ran out of his favorite liquor. With Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor stores closed under orders from the governor, what else could he do?

He could have bought it online at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s website — www.finewineandgoodspirits.com — but the site, unable to handle the demand, was telling visitors to “come back later.”

Growing impatient, the man drove across the Delaware River to Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where he was welcomed by one of the Garden State’s privately run liquor stores, which are still open, and bought what he needed. But while the store was well stocked, and the staff helpful, it was still a stressful experience.

“I wore a mask and gloves, but almost no one was, and because of the layout of the store, it was all but impossible to keep 6 feet away,” he said.  “It was very cramped and crowded with a lot of customers. It was a scary experience.”

It was also an illegal experience. Pennsylvania law prohibits residents from transporting alcoholic beverages into the state. The law, passed to prevent bootlegging long ago, is seldom enforced.

The Allentown man said much of the crowd in the store were border hoppers like him.

“I’d say there were several Pennsylvania license plates in the parking lot,” he said.

But, data just released from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States shows that many people living in border areas of the state are doing the same thing.

“The numbers show that sales in states surrounding Pennsylvania are growing. It’s pretty phenomenal,” said David Ozgo, chief economist for the council.

The national average increase for spirits sales for the week ending on March 28 was 27 percent. Pennsylvania border states saw even bigger increases: Ohio saw a 60% increase, West Virginia, 32%; and Maryland, 28%. New Jersey was flat, but saw an 80% increase the week prior.

Ozgo said the data comes directly from point of sale scanners monitored by the A.C. Nielsen Co.

“We’ve had anecdotal evidence for a while now through this crisis, but now the data shows it,” he said.

The news doesn’t come as a surprise to the Pennsylvania Liquor control board, which oversees the state’s Fine Wine and Good Spirits shops.

“We are aware of the situation,” said PLCB Press Secretary Shawn Kelly in an interview with Lehigh Valley Business.

He said he also understands people’s frustration with the state’s online liquor store, which has been turning away far more customers than it’s been servicing. He said the online system simply wasn’t designed to handle the capacity it’s seeing.

Between April 1 and April 5 the website accepted 4,300 orders and had $386,000 in online sales. By comparison, in the 2018-19 fiscal year the website had 39,000 online orders and about $5 million in sales. And while it is not ideal, the agency is doing all it can under the current shut down orders and it is trying to increase its sales capabilities, he said.

Ozgo said, clearly, that’s not enough.

“It is a financial issue,” he said.

He said the data shows that Pennsylvania is losing about $16 million in sales per week by having stores shut. That’s led to about a $10 million dollar a week loss for suppliers as a result.

“Just as importantly, though, when you have people crowding into border stores, as they are doing, it just plain isn’t safe,” Ozgo said.

He respects that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf was very well intentioned when he closed the stores to keep everyone safe, but argued that by solving one problem he created another.

Noting that Pennsylvania is the only state that closed its liquor stores, Ozgo said the council is hoping that Wolf will reconsider the full closure and adapt to some of the safety measures used in other states.

“Other states have made changes for social distancing,” he said.

Many stores are following the lead of some major grocery store chains and only letting so many customers through the door at one time. Some are having people call in their orders ahead of time. Some are offering curbside pickup.

“There are a lot of things that can be done,” he said.

For now the Governor has given no indication that he plans to reopen the state’s brick and mortar liquor stores, but the PLCB is working at added capacity on its website.

However, Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council, said more action is needed.

“While well-intentioned, the hit-or-miss online sales opportunity is not a solution. Consumers continue to flock to neighboring states despite COVID-19 concerns,” Swonger said.